When should business leaders speak out on social issues?

Employers must act on the issues that their employees care about.

If companies want to build productive and sustainable businesses they need to engage their people. For business leaders to achieve this they need to have their finger on the pulse of their organisation. They must understand what is important to their people and help frame how the organisation is responding to these issues.

As business leaders, we know that our employees think and care deeply about social issues like climate change, income inequality, homelessness, indigenous disadvantage and marriage equality. So if we want to engage our employees, we have to engage in the issues that matter the most to them.

Business leaders must have a line of authority when expressing their opinion on social issues

If a business leader is going to take a public opinion on a social issue, it’s important to express why that opinion is important to their business. Perhaps it’s something within the social fabric of the nation that impacts the ability of the business to be as successful as it could be, like marriage equality. The social issue doesn’t have to directly impact the business as long as there is a clear line of authority.

Once they have identified their line of authority, leaders need a framework to determine how strongly they should speak out on the particular issue and what organisational resources they are prepared to deploy against it.

When I was president at Chief Executive Women, we developed a framework to help us determine what was important to achieving our mission of improving gender equity and enhancing women’s leadership. When we saw an issue that was impacting negatively on our mission we would look to see whether the natural champions for that issue were stepping up and putting out an effective case.

If the natural champions were already providing their voice, then we only needed to lend ours, rather than acting as the prime mover. But if there was a gap there that wasn’t being filled and we felt emboldened by the issue, then we would step into that space putting resources from our organisation behind the argument.

By explicitly outlining this approach, we were able to explain to our stakeholders why we were taking strong positions. I think that is a process that it’s important for all organisations to work through before speaking out on social issues.

Your personal opinion doesn’t have to be the company’s opinion (but they can’t contradict)

For directors in particular, it’s important to ensure that their opinions aren’t going to put the company in a difficult position. This is mostly about about good due diligence. Before joining a board most directors will do due diligence. In my due diligence, I talk to the chairman about my positioning on specific areas like gender advocacy and gender equity.

Importantly, that’s also because I wouldn’t be prepared to join an organisation that wasn’t supportive of those issues. Likewise, I would find it very difficult to sit around the table with people who weren’t at least prepared to have a conversation with me about my position on marriage equality. It would be untenable for both me and the organisation if our views weren’t in close alignment.

For all these reasons, a strong standpoint on marriage equality just makes good business sense

In Australia, we’re blessed with a highly skilled workforce and for us to achieve our potential we need every single one of those workers to come to work bringing their absolute best every day. For everyone to be engaged and productive, each person needs to feel as if they’re on a level playing field with their peers.

Beyond the social equity case, this is a big business issue that hurts so many of our employees. For example at AGL, we know that lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) employees represent almost 8% of our workforce, or nearly 300 people (AGL 2017 Sustainability Report).

Many of those 300 people are in committed relationship with partners of the same sex. They want nothing more than to be able to express a lifelong commitment to their partner – it’s such a basic right to be able to commit to someone you love. No one can leave discrimination at home when they walk out the door each day. You carry that feeling and hurt with you to work.

By supporting marriage equality, business leaders can show all their employees that they believe they are important and equal. That’s why I believe that marriage equality is a social issue that all businesses should speak out on.

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