Are You A Business Leader? Americans Believe You Have A Role To Play In Safeguarding Democracy.
As Americans, we are in an unprecedented period of time: We have a hugely impactful presidential election barreling towards us and a major Supreme Court appointment on the horizon, and, of course, everything is set against the last seven months of a global pandemic that has killed more than 200,000 Americans and a reckoning with racial injustice. Amidst this turmoil, Americans are turning to business leaders to play a role in where we go from here.
According to recent polling by JUST Capital and our partner, the Harris Poll, 68% of people believe that business leaders have a role to play in building our collective future, rather than just an individual company’s operations, and we’ve increasingly seen business leaders embrace this. While there’s some disagreement about what it means operationally and how to measure it, there’s general understanding about its definition: Treat your workers well, respect your customers, value your community, safeguard the environment, and deliver returns to shareholders.
But the intensity of this moment, with people feeling like they’re not being heard, along with questions about the safety and reliability of our electoral system, has raised a question: Is our democracy also a stakeholder of capitalism? And should corporate leaders be recognizing it as such? We released a new survey that says that most Americans believe so.
There are leading business thinkers in academia that agree. R. Edward Freeman from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business, and often credited as one of the creators of the concept of stakeholder capitalism, writes in a 2019 piece that companies have both the capacity and the responsibility to help maintain democratic principles. Rebecca Henderson, a professor at Harvard Business School, believes that the free market only can truly thrive with strong government and a strong democracy.
And as I’ve previously argued, a healthy democracy and healthy market go hand in hand. Without the rule of law, there is little consistency and predictability for companies.
At JUST Capital, we’re continually polling the public to understand what their priorities are on just business behavior. We recently asked people what they thought companies should be doing to promote democracy. While some are more relevant in this moment than others, the responses from the American public taken together provide a useful guide for where companies should focus efforts:
- Give time off to people to vote: About seven in 10 Americans believe that companies should ensure that their workers can vote by giving them that time off. The truth is that ensuring workers have adequate time to vote is table stakes at this point. An effort organized by PayPal, Levi Strauss & Co, and Patagonia now has over 1,400 businesses committing to giving people time off to vote. The list includes big retailers like Walmart, Best Buy, and Target.
- Lobby for what advances society AND business interest. 65% of people said companies should limit lobbying efforts that favor shareholder returns over the welfare of other stakeholders. This one is admittedly a bit vague, but based on our other polling of Americans’ views, I’d recommend corporate leaders ask if a specific lobbying engagement with the government will advance the interests of your workers. What about your communities? Or your suppliers? If the answer is no, or maybe not, reconsider. There is real value in advancing societal interests: There are longer-term risks associated with a system that promotes inequality by prioritizing shareholders above all other stakeholders. We’re seeing it play out in real time. And there are plenty of ways for companies to engage in this goal. The National Partnership for Public Service, an organization dedicated to creating a government system that is responsive and innovative, creates opportunities for companies to engage in building a better government. In short: engagement with government is critical. Engagement with government to advance short-term profit incentives over holistic business and societal well-being is not.
- Take a stand against the spread of disinformation and safeguard the integrity of elections against foreign interference. 63% of Americans want companies to take an active stand against the spread of disinformation by identifying and debunking falsehoods and propaganda and 62% want companies to safeguard the integrity of elections against foreign interference and/or cyberattacks. This obviously has more of a direct impact on some companies than others but at the end of the day, business leaders have a role to play in active advancement of verified truth, both within their own companies, and in broader society.
- Support candidates who explicitly commit to upholding democracy and democratic norms. And support the democratic system: 62% of people say that business leaders should be supporting candidates who have publicly committed to upholding democracy. Further, leaders can ask those running for office who haven’t, why they haven’t. The Leadership Now Project has concrete steps for business leaders to take to publicly promote trust with our electoral system.
- Ensure everyone has a voice in democracy: One of the realities that we’re seeing play out in real time is that people feel like they don’t have a voice in the process. Still others see they don’t have a voice through mismanagement and active manipulation at a state and local level. Business leaders are incredibly well-respected and have a role to play in working with local governments to advocate for changing laws that, for example, restrict voting rights for Black and Brown Americans (57%), or have lost their voice through gerrymandering (56%).
- Speak out against the rush to confirm a new Supreme Court Justice: Interestingly, more than half of Americans (54%), including a plurality of Republicans (46%) and Independents (51%), think business leaders should speak out publicly to ask Congress to delay confirming a new Supreme Court Justice until after the elected president is sworn into office.
Finally, there’s another kind of democracy we believe is important, but not covered in this poll, and that’s giving workers a voice at the table. Friends of JUST Capital, Rachel Korberg of the Ford Foundation and Sharon Block of Harvard Law School, recently argued in Fortune that companies should be seeking out workers’ opinions on the job around how to open and operate effectively. Workers having a voice inside a company is also a form of democracy.
Americans are quite clear – they’re looking to business leaders to be part of the solution in protecting and upholding our democracy. The time to act is now.