Dodging the Social Issues

Today’s Wall Street Journal surveys the wreckage of recent weeks and headlines: “Companies’ New Cause: Dodging the Culture Wars.” It is all quite interesting, but I want to highlight a couple of points:

CEOs spent the past few years adjusting to a world in which investors, customers and employees expected corporate leaders to align themselves with social causes.

Did they really? I think that only a small minority of investors, driven by the ESG fad, were leaning on companies to go left. Likewise, in most industries the number of employees who pushed management to wade into the culture wars must have been few, and concentrated among younger and less essential workers. And was there ever a time when substantial numbers of customers wanted the companies they patronize to espouse leftism? I don’t think so.

Rather, I think that wokeism penetrated certain limited precincts of corporate America, mostly Human Resources departments, but also found a willing audience among a number of CEOs who, in many cases, don’t have long histories with their companies, don’t necessarily know a great deal about their companies’ products or services, and are susceptible to trends, especially trends that put them in a good light within their peer group.

Over the past decade, companies have become more vocal on causes such as immigration, voting access, abortion, gay rights and racial equity, often taking stances shared by progressives. Many executives said they felt pushed by employees or customers to express an opinion on issues rippling through society.

What is changing now, executives and corporate advisers said, is that conservative groups and political leaders are pushing back against companies more forcefully. Consumers are also more openly expressing frustration that companies are airing views in ways some don’t welcome.

How can this possibly have come as a surprise to corporate leaders? On all of the issues that have gotten companies into trouble, public opinion favors the conservative position at least as much as the liberal one, usually more. Apparently the suits took it for granted that conservatives are quiescent and can safely be ignored.

The Journal quotes the CEO of Upwork, which “operates a marketplace for freelance workers and other professionals”:

The company considers a series of questions when deciding whether to weigh in: “How central is this topic to our business, to our customers? Does it really concern them? Would they expect us to be opining on this because it really intersects with their day-to-day lives?” she said. “We don’t think it’s our job to opine on everything. But at the same time, it’s not our job to stay on the sidelines, either.”

Really? Why not stay on the sidelines, unless the issue is one that is actually germane, in an important way, to the company’s business? For example, the rapidly rising cost of electricity “really intersects with [the] day-to-day lives” of every company’s customers, but I don’t know of any companies that have taken an anti-green energy position so as to align themselves with customers’ political or economic concerns that are not specifically related to the company’s business.

The Journal’s story wraps up with reassurance that companies are not abandoning their commitment to liberal activism.

“It’s not the end of LGBT marketing. It’s the end of amateurism in LGBT marketing,” said Fabrice Houdart, who consults with Fortune 500 companies and directs an organization for LGBT board members. He said senior leaders should consult with marketing, legal and communications teams, and also with employee resource groups, such as an LGBT employee group, along with human-rights advisers, if they have them.

So will those human rights advisers advise on the use of slave labor in China? Or child mining of “green” minerals in Africa? Are those human rights issues that corporations will start opining on?

Just kidding.

“I can see that my clients are more cautious,” he said. “But none of them have said ‘I’m going to change my strategy or roll back what I’m doing.’”

If that is true, they are going to encounter a lot more trouble from disgruntled conservatives.

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