A UK Government Minister has publicly criticised corporates that are threatening to pull out of Britain over Brexit, branding last week’s comments by Airbus “completely inappropriate.” In an unprecedented move, the public was urged to stop our ears and ignore the “siren voices” of multinational employers making public interventions in politics.
But are these siren voices an inappropriate distraction, or are business leaders sounding a valuable note of warning, a lighthouse steering us clear of the rocks?
The separation of business and politics has long been considered sacrosanct. While companies lobby to influence specific industry and legislative issues, at a macro policy level they generally aspire to be nonpartisan.
Political bias can alienate employees and customers alike, and in extreme cases it can affect the favourability of the regulatory environment and a company’s license to operate. What’s more, in our digital times an outspoken opinion can set an expectation that lasts a lifetime.
Against this context of political neutrality, we’ve seen the rise and rise of corporate values. These principles have become as entrenched as a corporate religion, a code which governs behaviour, culture and the norms by which companies operate.
Values generate followers, conveying competitive advantage in attracting customers and talent, with employees accepting lower salaries or fewer tangible benefits for an employer brand they identify with. But organisations that profit from their values will pay a high price if they fall short of their promises.
It’s no surprise that corporates have remained conspicuously nonpartisan for years, but when political ideologies are becoming increasingly polarised, the question is whether it’s possible (or even desirable) for companies to remain apolitical?
As political agendas move from shades of grey to harsh clashing colours, we are witnessing a shift towards ‘uncorporate communications’ where leaders are willing to speak out as representatives of their company to protect their brand’s core values and influence issues which have a direct impact on their business and their responsibilities to their employees and supply chain.
The gravity of Brexit may have been the first political issue to coax British business leaders off the fence in decades – and may set a new blueprint for corporate values and behaviour.
We’ve seen the rise of the digital resistance in the US as Tech CEOs have united to oppose immigration policy from the ‘travel ban’ to the separation of families at the Mexican border. Multinational companies have moved to defend not just the free movement of labour they need to operate, but the liberal democratic values their employees align with. This is a significant movement with global implications: business sirens are highlighting not only the issues that affect them directly, but taking a stance to make political change in the world.
We are now entering uncharted territory. In this polarised political environment, remaining in the neutral zone is almost impossible for companies that trade on their values as an intrinsic part of their operating model.
Leaders need to decide where their company stands on the most critical political issues, and identify the lines that cannot be crossed. The days of corporate neutrality may be numbered.