Cara Maurer is an assistant professor of general management and organizational behaviour at the Ivey Business School; Tima Bansal is a professor of General Management and Sustainability at Ivey and Canada Research Chair in research sustainability; Mary Crossan is a professor of general management at Ivey and Paul MacPherson Chair in Strategic Leadership
In recent days, U.S. corporate giants Goldman Sachs, Ford, and Starbucks have taken a clear and decisive stance against President Donald Trump's executive order on travel from seven Muslim-majority countries. In contrast, Corporate Canada has been rather quiet on the ban. This doesn't mean that companies don't care or are ambivalent, but possibly because they are questioning their role or fear getting caught in the crossfire. It is a tough call: stay silent and invisible or speak up and risk attack. Any action is bound to provoke a counter-reaction.
But, there is also risk in staying silent. Take the example of Uber – the U.S. ride-sharing company that disrupted the taxi and limousine industry. When drivers of traditional taxi companies boycotted JFK airport in New York to support those stranded as a result of the global travel order, Uber's company app kept connecting drivers and users. Many users were outraged because they saw Uber on the wrong side of history, and urged other users in the network to delete their Uber accounts. When the hashtag #deleteUber started to trend on social media, Uber back-peddled, offered a public statement in support of no ban and even set aside a $3-million (U.S.) fund to compensate drivers for lost pay. Uber chief executive officer Travis Kalanick even went so far as to quit Mr. Trump's business-advisory group.
Corporate Canada and companies in general might wish to keep business and politics separate. But when politics stir up social values as deeply as it has, organizations cannot ignore the issues that arise. In our own research at the Ivey Business School, we examined how social values of society and the economic value of organizations are intertwined. There are costs to organizations who get caught amid social-values conflicts, as Uber discovered.
Trying to make sense of events that are transpiring outside of the workplace, employees are looking to the leadership of their organizations for reassurance of core values, such as equality, respect for other cultures, freedom, and humanity – particularly when these are in danger. If core values are not affirmed at a time when they are most needed, confusion and false attributions can follow. The chasm between opposing points of view will grow, possibly pitting colleagues against colleagues, staff against management and customers against business.
Social issues are divisive because people hold different values and views on issues such as religion, liberty, and security. No matter what a company says or does not say, some stakeholders will feel alienated. Support for one group estranges another.
But there is a different approach that Corporate Canada can embrace. Rather than staying silent or polarizing views further, companies can actually turn a volatile situation into one that calms and builds cohesion. In such circumstances, corporations can help to shape public discourse, strengthen Canada's social fabric, and be more protected from attack.
The following steps should be considered:
Invite input from all stakeholders to gain full understanding of the values and reactions involved. By listening to all sides, companies can take a position that demonstrates understanding and empathy on divisive issues and may garner support from those who hold neutral positions;
Take a positive stance:
Avoid extreme and negative positions, which pit values against values and people against people. Instead, ground in values that are easily embraced by many such as humanity and social order;
Focus on actions consistent with your values:
Starbucks, for example, has pledged to hire 10,000 refugees over the next five years in 75 countries it operates in. Actions speak louder than words. Pushback is likely so it is important to select actions carefully;
Take the long view:
It will take time for everyone to make sense of a situation. It may take sustained time and effort to get to desired outcomes and there are likely costs on the way. Avoid flip-flopping on the issues but stay consistent with your company's core values.
We encourage Corporate Canada to break the silence and shape public discourse, but do so in a way that builds common ground, instead of dividing it. Not fuelling fear, panic and hate, inside and outside an organization is essential. Offering positive stances that bridge universal values allows companies to protect Canada's social fabric.
The efforts of Corporate Canada in building bridges toward values of equality, respect, freedom and humanity will go a long way. Especially if everyone does it together.