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White Supremacy: What’s a CEO to Do?

Image credit: Edu Bayer/New York Times

If you’re a U.S. business leader, this week likely threw you into a professional conundrum: Should you take a public stand against white supremacy knowing you’ll jump into treacherous political waters?

Brands have traditionally been mute on political issues and active only in apolitical societal causes — reading to children, feeding the hungry and supporting veterans, for example. This approach minimizes the possibility of offending, and possibly losing, customers and employees. In today’s bizarre political context, there is the additional risk that our country’s president will exert revenge on a brand. No wonder many business executives are taking shelter from the white supremacy storm behind a shield of silence.

Don’t be fooled, though. Inaction in the face of nation-shocking events is replete with risks. By staying silent, you might:

    • Lose brand value and sales. Your customers aren’t like those of generations past, concerned only with product price, quality and safety. Today, they care less about the product than about the values the brand represents. Recent research finds that 86 percent of Americans would purchase a product because the company stood up for an issue that they cared about. Another study found that 87 percent of Americans expect companies to support racial equality. Early metrics on Intel, Merck and Under Armour support the findings that Americans value, and reward, business leaders who stand up to white supremacy: Since their CEOs resigned from the president's manufacturing council, social media mentions of all three companies has skyrocketed and the sentiment of these mentions is overwhelmingly positive.
    • Lose employees. This week, do your African American, Jewish and other minority employees feel supported or forsaken by their employer? You might not think it’s your responsibility to defend your employees' dignity. The majority of your workforce, however, likely disagrees: Another recent survey found that 58 percent of employees would like to see their employer use its influence to improve race relations. Not standing up for your minority employees could cost you the loyalty of the majority of your workforce.
    • Lose sleep. As a company leader, whether at a Fortune 500 or a small firm, your actions have oversized influence. You hold an esteemed position at a time when our country suffers from a leadership vacuum. Every voice against white supremacy nudges our society toward a sane and just future. If you do nothing and society devolves to be more nasty and brutish, will you regret your inaction?

Many business leaders and brands, including Walmart and GoDaddy, have already taken public stands against white supremacy in response to the events in Charlottesville. Tiki Brand, which made the torches used by the white supremacists, issued the following statement: “TIKI Brand is not associated in any way with the events that took place in Charlottesville and are deeply saddened and disappointed. We do not support their message or the use of our products in this way. Our products are designed to enhance backyard gatherings and to help family and friends connect with each other at home in their yard.”

I’m not suggesting that you simply do what’s right and everything will work out. That's naïve. Managing a for-profit enterprise is indescribably complex. Many considerations precede any significant business decision. Instead, I’m advocating that you actively explore options and deliberately choose what you and your company will do, or not, about the dark cloud of white supremacy. Defaulting to inaction by pretending it's not your issue is dangerous  for you, your company and your country.

This post first appeared on LinkedIn on August 16, 2017.


Bea Boccalandro is founder and president of VeraWorksa global consulting firm that helps managers and companies design, implement and measure corporate involvement in societal causes — including job purposing, the management practice of heightening employee engagement, performance… [Read more about Bea Boccalandro]