Even by recent standards for the constant pace of news alerts, tweets and chaotic press briefings, it has been quite a week for businesses with ties to the current administration.
It started Tuesday when members of the American Manufacturing Council resigned in protest after the Trump Administration’s delayed and equivocal responses to a violent white supremacist gathering in Charlottesville. CEOs of Merck, Under Armour, Intel and the Alliance for American Manufacturing decided to part ways with the council, disavowing the administration for what they saw as remarks and actions that directly conflicted not only with their values, but also with the values of the companies they represent. On Wednesday, amid reports of a growing number of leaders set on leaving, President Trump disbanded both his Manufacturing Council and Strategic and Policy Forum, dismissing all leaders before anyone else could publically quit.
In a way, this shouldn’t be surprising. Companies routinely end sponsorship deals with celebrities for bad behavior and break ties with charitable organizations for questionable practices. But a partnership break of this scale may very well be unprecedented. These councils offered leaders remarkable access to the White House and allowed them to provide regular feedback on national policy decisions. Even for CEOs, this represented a step up in the form of an opportunity to shape the political landscape.
This marks a dramatic shift from decades ago, when it was rare for companies in the U.S. to have a focus on policy issues or communities outside of their organization. The last twenty years have witnessed an accelerated intermingling of politics and business. At the same time, corporate social responsibility, diversity and inclusion, and sustainability have all emerged as key issues for many top organizations. But these attempts to give back are increasingly at odds with a socially conservative administration — one that has taken a stand against U.S. participation in the Paris Climate Accord, has actively defunded social infrastructure projects, and has now demonstrated an inability to forcefully denounce organizations founded on racist and exclusionary principles.
The administration’s words and actions raise a series of important questions, especially for employers that may have been initially intrigued by candidate Trump’s pro-business promises. What should corporate leaders do when the values of the company they represent no longer align with the current administration and presidential rhetoric? How should they respond when comments and policymaking directly conflicts with an “unwavering dedication to diversity and inclusion” or the core tenets of a mission to pursue a more sustainable future?
In this case, CEOs on the American Manufacturing Council resigned and decided they were responsible for serving their own people, companies and personal values. But some were also criticized for waiting too long to arrive at this decision, and were perceived as unwilling to give up influence and their access to the administration. Moving forward, one thing is clear: corporate leaders must take the time to consider the mission of their organizations and decide how they want to advance their policy priorities, while staying true to their ethical responsibilities, their employees, their customers and themselves.
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