TAKING A STAND ON SOCIAL ISSUES

Is there ever a benefit to taking a stand on issues in the news? Four CEOs speak their minds…


Once they hid behind corporate spin doctors whose job it was to ensure that they never stepped into controversy. Today, leaders find themselves in positions where they need to decide whether to take a stand or stay silent.

Four years ago, Qantas CEO Alan Joyce found himself in the vanguard, promising he would be “strongly campaigning for a Yes vote” in the marriage equality postal ballot. Dozens of corporations put their names to an open letter urging an affirmative result.

More recently, the Black Lives Matter movement saw a sea of corporations having to decide whether to publicly support the cause or stay silent. In the push for equality and the eradication of sexual misconduct, few companies have been immune from demands that leaders speak out.

Listed companies with boards and shareholders to answer to frequently find themselves in a bind. Someone is going to be offended. And then there is the issue of what their workforces think.

While the issue of when to take a stand and when not to is difficult to resolve, here are different takes from four Australian business leaders whose organisations are members of The Ethics Alliance.

Where do you stand?

MICHELLE BLOOM Director of Consulting and Leadership The Ethics Centre

There is no ‘organisation’ without the biosphere. Notions of seeing the organisation as a separate entity from the context in which it operates in (social, environmental or economic) are linear and outdated thinking.

From the COVID global pandemic and its subsequent economic, health, environmental and social disruption through to climate change, bushfires, droughts and floods, increased radicalisation, rising mental health issues, big data and digital disruption, complexity and its aftermath is a defining feature of everyone's lives.

As these changes impact the business environment – responding to and managing complexity has become leaders’ biggest challenge. To not do so increases ethical risk.

Leaders need to respond and adapt to the increasing complexity and interconnectedness of all these issues with systemic solutions. This requires leaders to let go of old ways of working, challenge assumptions and world views.

Central to this principle is seeing the organisation as an organic part of society. The health of the organisation is therefore explicitly linked to the health of the whole society, planet and global economy. Seen in this way, it no longer becomes a choice about speaking up about systemic challenges but a duty and responsibility of leaders to steward their organisations in an ethical way and for the greater good of all.

Michael Schneider Managing Director of Bunnings Group

“When you try to have an opinion on lots of different topics, the danger is you end up being a master of many and an expert of very few, and your voice becomes white noise.”

You need to have a voice

MICHAEL SCHNEIDER Managing Director of Bunnings Group

Number of employees: 31,000+ Revenue: A$13.2 billion (2019) “The court of public opinion is a pretty tough marker, from what we’re seeing all around the world at the moment,” says Bunnings Group’s Michael Schneider. He believes “business has a legitimate leadership role to play”, but he has his own take on what that means for Bunnings. Schneider’s key philosophy is putting forward a voice only when an issue is relevant to his organisation.

“I think you need to have a voice on the topics you have a legitimate purpose to lead on,” he says. For Bunnings that means areas such as wellbeing, inclusion and mental health, as well as environmental issues such as sourcing sustainably logged timber.

Schneider recognises that even in situations where he or other executives may not have personal views, it’s important as a leadership group that “we stop and reflect on what’s going on in society and in the community and contemplate where we need to have a perspective”. He adds: “More often than not we’ll find we have nothing to say.”

While Schneider says Bunnings isn’t afraid to make a stand, such as committing to source 100 per cent of its power from renewables by 2025, he cautions against attempting to respond to every single issue. “The second you try to have an opinion or leadership role on lots of different topics,” he says, “the danger is you’re going to end up being a master of many and an expert of very few, and your voice becomes white noise.”

You need to ask three questions

DAMIEN MU CEO of AIA Australia

Number of employees: 1000+ Revenue: Approx. $2.7 billion

Damien Mu holds the integrity of social issues above the benefits of performatively speaking out. He’ll only take a corporate stance if he believes his company has the credibility to do so – and if the company’s intentions are genuine.

Mu has a well-defined three-step framework that he applies to the question of whether to speak up.

The first step is to determine whether the issue aligns with “the organisation’s values and beliefs”. The second is to ask the following: “Do we feel we have enough credibility and have we walked the talk enough to go out there and talk about it?”.

This question is crucial and one that can divide Mu’s individual values from the messaging of the organisation. He says, for example, “We’re not doing enough in the Indigenous space for me to feel comfortable to come out and talk about it. But do I believe in and am I doing things on that front with the organisation? Yes.”

Mu’s third and final test is to ask: “Is it about you or the organisation, or is it genuinely about the greater good? Because if it’s just about you and the organisation on these socially important issues, don’t mess it up for people, don’t do a disservice to a bloody important issue.”

Mu says when employees disagree on an issue, “I thank them for that and let them know it's important to understand how they feel”. However, he will not compromise on values due to employee disagreement as his priorities lie in a genuine “embracing of difference and respect for everyone”.

Damien Mu CEO of AIA Australia

“Do we feel we have enough credibility and have we walked the talk enough to go out there and talk about it?”

Elisabeth Shaw CEO of Relationships Australia NSW

“Don’t speak up where you don’t belong, as it’ll be disingenuous, but once you have your issue and stance, you should scream it from the rooftops.”

Scream it from the rooftops

ELISABETH SHAW CEO of Relationships Australia NSW

Number of employees: 210+ (2019 annual report) Revenue: Not-for-profit

Pivotal to Elisabeth Shaw’s moral stance is authenticity. “You need to be authentic," she says. "There’s a lot of organisations that do a social post on celebrating this or that and you really don’t know how many are just doing the dutiful post and how much of that is depth and resonance.”

While standing firm on the need for organisations to speak up, stating “an organisation that says nothing is a lesser organisation”, Shaw still sees fit to exercise healthy caution and procedures before doing so. “I say to our teams: ‘We shouldn’t speak up until we stand on solid ground – you’ve got to have your own house in order or it’ll seem mischievous and your staff won’t appreciate it.’”

However, Shaw does acknowledge that her organisation’s voice should only be used on relevant issues. “For example, climate change – yes, we could throw our voice in, but are we the right organisation to do that?” Furthermore, Shaw pinpoints a difficulty balancing a need to be “socially responsible in the spaces you occupy” and whether “that means you should actually participate in public debate”.

“It’d be a very noisy space if everyone joined in,” she says, warning of the “bandwagon effect” where businesses may performatively support a cause publicly, with potentially disingenuous intentions of advancing their own interests. In essence, she says, “Don’t speak up where you don’t belong, as it’ll be disingenuous, but once you have your issue and stance, you should scream it from the rooftops.”

Make sure the issues align

VIOLET ROUMELIOTIS CEO of Settlement Services International

Number of employees: 800+ paid staff, 350+ volunteers Revenue: Not-for-profit Violet Roumeliotis weighs the balance between organisational risks and speaking on behalf of organisational values. She says she puts social issues through an initial screening: “We need to consider the risks – corporate reputation, how funders and shareholders will react, and whether it will affect our stakeholder relationships. We also need to look at whether the issue itself is relevant to our business strategy and customers.

“Ultimately, though, it comes down to how an issue aligns with our organisation’s values, and whether, after identifying the risks, we are still prepared to follow through on those values.”

Roumeliotis’s philosophy was demonstrated in her actions during the marriage equality plebiscite. “We saw more and more people coming in as refugees and asylum seekers who, because of their [sexual or gender orientation] had to flee, and then we had frontline staff who were actually very much against homosexuality. We really needed to address that, because if we’ve got values … then that was just unacceptable.”

She continues: “Our position was that irrespective of your personal beliefs, we’re a values-driven social business, which goes hand-in-hand with supporting marriage equality.” While Roumeliotis runs a not-for-profit organisation, she denounces having a purely for-profit focus, which she describes as “vertical soloism, where you’ve got one function, one role and that’s it”.

She says you can’t just “be the bottom line, and when we see that happen, we see the Amazon decimated. It’s extraordinary, this sense that somehow you’re not connected to mother earth and to others”.

Roumeliotis strongly believes in an organisation living its values, but recognises that you can’t speak out on every issue.

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Violet Roumeliotis CEO of Settlement Services International

“Ultimately, it comes down to how an issue aligns with our organisation’s values, and whether, after identifying the risks, we are still prepared to follow through on those values.”