More businesses should nail their political colours to the mast

Silicon Valley is standing up to Trump, but it's not just tech firms that ought to show moral leadership.

by Jack Torrance
Last Updated: 30 Jan 2017

Unless you’ve had the good fortune to completely ignore the news this weekend then you’ve surely seen the furore that has greeted Donald Trump’s decision to block visitors from seven Middle Eastern countries from going to the United States. The move has provoked global admonishment and more than 1,200,000 Brits have signed a petition against the president’s planned state visit to the UK – even if our prime minister hasn’t had much to say about it.

The so-called Muslim ban has also attracted much criticism from some of America’s business elite. Google co-founder Sergey Brin (himself a refugee) was spotted protesting at San Franciso airport. Mark Zuckerberg penned a Facebook post saying the US should be ‘proud’ to be a nation of immigrants. Apple, whose late founder Steve Jobs was himself the son of a Syrian migrant, said it didn't support the policy. 

After Uber was accused of breaking up a taxi drivers’ strike against the ban in New York, its rival Lyft smelled blood, came out strongly against Trump and pledged to donate $1,000,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union campaign group. Meanwhile Airbnb offered free accommodation to those affected by the ban.

Such behaviour is unfamiliar to observers of Britain’s top businesses, which are generally unwilling to stick their heads above the parapet unless absolutely necessary. Speaking out about such a controversial subject is undeniably risky – especially when the target of your criticisms has a short temper and is the most powerful man in the world. Trump commanded the support of millions in the election (even if he didn’t get the most votes...) and no business leader wants to piss off so many potential customers. There’s a danger that some companies come to be seen, like so many Hollywood actors, as out of touch west coast elites.

But it’s easy to see why the Silicon Valley big dogs have decided to speak up. Their customers are disproportionately young and urban, and therefore much more likely to oppose Trump’s values.

The same is true of their workers. Almost two thirds of all the skilled temporary workers admitted to the US via its H-1B visa scheme work in tech roles. And many of those who end up working for the likes of Google and Facebook do so at least partly because they believe all the corporate mantras (some might call it guff) about breaking down barriers and making the world a better place. To remain quiet at a time like this would have been to expose the worthlessness of those mantras.

Many of the tech giants’ criticisms of the policy were rather mealy-mouthed and, wisely, none took aim at Trump directly. But they stand in stark contrast to the rest of the business community in the US, which has for the most part remained as tight-lipped as those on this side of the Atlantic tend to be. Goldman Sachs boss Lloyd Blankfein criticised the ban in an internal message to employees but the ‘vampire squid’ hasn’t spoken out in public.

A notable exception outside tech was Starbucks. Its CEO and founder Howard Schultz didn’t mince his words, warning that ‘the civility and human rights we have all taken for granted for so long are under attack,’ and pledging to hire 10,000 refugees globally over the next five years. It’s a very bold move by Starbucks, which unlike Facebook and co. could probably have got away with keeping its head down.

Few corporate leaders over here would dare follow in Schultz’s footsteps should a similarly divisive policy ever (God forbid) be introduced over here. Last year the government revealed plans to ‘name and shame’ companies that employed a high proportion of migrant workers. Many leaders opposed the measure. But barring a few entrepreneurs and the business lobby groups, none felt the need to speak out.

Why are Brit bosses so reticent? Part of the issue is that unlike Starbucks and most of the American tech giants, few of our largest companies are still run by their founders. It’s telling that WPP’s Martin Sorrell and fellow entrepreneur Tim Martin of JD Wetherspoon were two of the more vocal business people on opposite sides of the Brexit debate. Those who create a business obviously feel more comfortable speaking on its behalf than those appointed to run one on behalf of shareholders.

But more of Britain’s big cheeses should consider nailing their colours to the mast, for the sake of their workforces if not the sake of society. The telcos, retailers, banks and energy firms that make up the FTSE 100 might see Silicon Valley’s activism as a risk they can’t afford to take. But the flipside is that they’re always the ones whining that they can’t get the best talent because everyone wants to work for Google, Facebook and Amazon.

Few would deny that the ethical evangelism of Unilever boss Paul Polman has made his company a more attractive employer for today’s young workers, who as we’re always told are keen to find a job with ‘meaning’. If the next few years are as politically volatile as could be expected then those who stand idly by could find their brightest workers drawn away by those who aren’t afraid to speak up. 

Image source: Gage Skidmore

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