Businesses weigh in on insurrection—to what end?

Businesses weigh in on the insurrection, but to what end?
Photo by Andy Feliciotti/Unsplash

The insurrectionist mob assault on the U.S. Capitol prompted the usual spectrum of corporate responses, from Ben & Jerry’s full-throated tweet thread labeling it “a riot to uphold white supremacy” and advocating “not one more day” for the inciter-in-chief to Chevron’s achingly anodyne “We call for the peaceful transition of the U.S. government.”

Few responses were surprising: companies known for standing up for progressive values stood up for them, those that stretch to reach the bar of minimum social responsibility mildly supported minimum standards and those in between calibrated accordingly. This spectrum makes sense from a brand management perspective, but the pro forma nature of responses to national trauma obscures more complicated dynamics and larger ethical principles at work.

It’s not business. It’s personal.

Thinkshift signed on to a letter to Congress from the America Sustainable Business Council that called the assault “an act of domestic terrorism” and demanded that those who encouraged and incited it be held accountable. We didn’t do this because we thought it was necessary to support our brand but because we felt we had to say something.

Was that brave, or even bold? No. It was honest, though. As with many B Corps, our business is an extension and a reflection of our personal values. If we as people see something as horrific, we as a business do too. Cynical takes on business statements assume that they’re all calculated for commercial advantage. That’s understandable, especially when businesses weigh in on grave issues, but it’s not true. If you want to know the difference between performative business progressivism (or even basic decency) and the real thing, look for actions. Does the business behave in ways that support its stated values when no one is looking? Does it acknowledge when it may be part of a problem and take concrete steps to fix that? Does it consistently make statements on values issues even when those issues aren’t getting wall-to-wall news coverage?

Maybe don’t wave off the invisible hand

As businesses weigh in, the elephant-in-the-room question at this point is, does any of that even matter? It sometimes seems like businesses leading on social responsibility might remain a lonely forward force, with the crowd forever lagging behind. Business Roundtable commitments to stakeholder capitalism, which recognizes the interests of workers, communities and our long-term survival on this planet, seem not to have survived the pandemic. The list of large companies announcing they will suspend support for politicians who worked to override a legal election is long, but the commitments are vague.

Still, sustainable business advocates have always argued that the right thing to do is also the profitable thing to do, and perhaps business self-interest will help save democracy. This article in Harvard Business Review, published two days after the insurrection, argues that “American business needs American democracy”—and must take action for its own good. Rebecca Henderson, a Harvard Business School professor, writes:

“For years, American business has taken American institutions for granted. It has assumed that someone else would ensure that democracy, the rule of law, and the kind of robust, respectful discourse that keeps societies healthy would simply survive—and that the role of business was to keep its head down and maximize profits in the meantime. But this week’s events have demonstrated that we cannot take our democracy for granted. … American business needs American democracy.”

Henderson calls on businesses to speak out in favor of democratic norms, democratic processes and “sensible policies,” and to act collectively to support passage of democracy-strengthening legislation and address accelerating inequality. Some of this is already happening: Vox is keeping a running list of corporate responses to the insurrection, but as its introduction notes, “We don’t yet know how long these decisions will last or what their future ramifications will be.”

Words matter—sometimes more than we realize—but only when they’re backed up by genuine belief and commensurate, long-term action. The time is always right for businesses to weigh in with a statement in favor of truth, justice and moral fortitude—as long as you ensure that it doesn’t expire with last week’s news cycle.