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Businessman opening a newspaper (Photo by Adeolu Eletu on Unsplash)
02 June 2021

CEOs cannot avoid politics. “We are all in the fray”

USA | In the old days, employees lived by the rule: leave your politics and religion at the front door. Not any longer. Now they are encouraged to bring their “whole self to work”, which willy-nilly includes their political beliefs. Internal message boards are full of heated debates about all kinds of social issues. What are company bosses to do?

In recent weeks, beer and beverage companies have felt compelled to publicly speak out against voting laws (Coca-Cola), social injustice (Molson Coors) and various forms of discriminations (Constellation).

Incidentally, some tech firms have started to push back, The Economist newspaper reported on 22 May 2021. Google, Facebook and Shopify now discourage political debates on their internal message boards. Large tech firms even have moderators to keep internal online debates from getting out of hand.

Words are fine but what about deeds?

In a noteworthy, yet controversial interview with The Wall Street Journal (15 May), Ann Mukherjee, the North American chief of drinks firm Pernod Ricard, argues that CEOs cannot stand on the sidelines. “Employees today…they want to know what you stand for,” she said. “Staying silent is also a choice.”

Ms Mukherjee, who was born in India and raised in the US, has taken public stances on racial justice and other issues since her appointment to the top job in late 2019. She even introduced an Absolut Vodka marketing campaign in 2020, which tackles the subject of sexual consent.

In her view, any company operating in the US is a microcosm of America. Therefore, she has employees who are conservative and others who are liberal. “How we treat our employees is how we need to think about what corporate responsibility is,” she said.

“Corporate responsibility” is not as widely used these days as it was in the 1990s. Nowadays, CEOs prefer to talk about sustainability or Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). For Ms Mukherjee, corporate responsibility is in the intersection of understanding about doing what is right. It will mean different things for different companies, but she thinks that companies and CEOs at least should understand what it means for their company. “CEOs need to act on it. Sitting on the sidelines isn’t possible anymore for any leader,” she was quoted as saying.

More corporate waffle?

This equally applies to alcohol firms. “There are a lot of things we stand against, but nobody really takes on the issue that alcohol is at the intersection of a lot of issues. If you truly want to be responsible, you can’t hide behind it. There are a lot of people that use alcohol as a way to perpetrate violence. And it’s time for us, if we are asking consumers to be responsible, to stand up and talk about what that means.”

Referring to Pernod Ricard, she thinks that she needs to find what they call a “better balance”. “I need to make sure every minority group is represented. But I work for a French company. There are a lot of brilliant white French people at our company. They are just as important and matter just as much as every diverse group,” she admitted.

In the comments section to the interview, Ms Mukherjee received a lot of flak for her wokeness. Many deemed her answers too vague, and wondered how Pernod Ricard’s sales had fared under her leadership. Several warned that when a company becomes political, it makes strong enemies and weak friends.

For better or for worse, employees and workers will be talking politics for a long time to come, The Economist warned. The risks to CEOs are immense. If they remain silent, they can end up being accused of complicity. If they speak out on some issues and not on others, they will face charges of inconsistency. Make no mistake, though. Companies are not a substitute for effective government.