President Donald Trump’s decision to cancel the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program has already stirred up a lot of controversy in the business world, with many CEOs and other corporate leaders speaking out either personally or on behalf of their companies to express opposition to it. Washington Post columnist Jena McGregor hears from several leadership experts that this outcry is not surprising, because business leaders are not as concerned as they used to be about the administration retaliating against them for speaking out:
If anything, said Jeff Sonnenfeld, a senior associate dean at Yale School of Management, it’s becoming more of the norm to speak out against the administration’s policies than for CEOs to bite their tongue. “I think the fear has largely dissipated unless you’re a major government contractor,” he said. “The idea of bullying — that’s no longer creating fear of consumer backlash. It’s almost becoming a badge of honor.”
We might even take it one step further: At a time when corporate activism is on the rise and most American millennials expect CEOs to be actively engaged on social issues, there is actually a risk involved in not taking a stand, especially when that stand accords with what many of your employees and customers believe. As we’ve seen in other recent controversies like the violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, CEOs are taking on much larger portfolios as public figures today than perhaps ever before.
If public pressure is one force compelling corporate leaders to play activist roles, however, another major factor is the workforce: Employees and candidates, especially the vast cohort of millennials, are pushing their bosses to speak and act on the values most of them believe in. The tech sector’s opposition to the Trump administration’s immigration policies, for example, has been guided in large part by activism among its employees, many of whom are themselves immigrants or the children of immigrants.
On the other hand, of course, employees who don’t share the predominant values within an organization can feel marginalized and persecuted, like the author of the memo on diversity that caused a stir at Google last month. Whenever you take a politically contentious position, you’re going to make some people unhappy, potentially including some people who work for you.
In this business environment of increasingly values-driven consumers and employees, we’re also seeing more organizations employ what we call “HR as PR”—making decisions about HR policies like compensation, benefits, or employee relations in an effort to win hearts and minds and present themselves as companies that take care of their people. In the Trump administration, as US companies take more public positions on contentious issues, they must keep in mind that these stances will be judged not only on what the CEO says, but also on what the company does. If words aren’t matched by actions, the consequences could be worse than not saying anything at all.
DACA is no exception. Among the statements that came out this week, the response from Microsoft stood out in that it not only expressed opposition to Trump’s policy decision, but also promised to provide assistance, including legal representation, to any DACA beneficiaries among its workforce who are targeted for deportation: “For the 39 Dreamers that we know of who are our employees, our commitment is clear,” President and Chief Legal Officer Brad Smith wrote. “If the government seeks to deport any one of them, we will provide and pay for their legal counsel.” Other organizations are making similar pledges to defend their employees (or their students, in the case of universities).
For organizations that decide to take a public position in favor of maintaining DACA, concrete actions like these will likely be the litmus test for the sincerity of their stances. In the era of HR as PR, when corporate leaders take a position against a policy that affects their employees, they should be prepared to stand up for those employees when push comes to shove.