There is no easy playbook here. While companies have zero obligation—legal or otherwise—to take a stand on any social or political issue, they have in recent years waded into those waters (consider after George Floyd’s killing, North Carolina’s bathroom ban, and Georgia’s voting laws). And of course companies don’t have opinions, CEOs do, which they may or may not share, and—as Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America stressed this week on CBS re: Roe—may or may not be the prevailing view of their constituents.
“It’s the settled law of the land. We believe people should have that access,” Moynihan said, cautioning that his opinion does not reflect that of all the company’s 200,000 U.S. employees. “I could have a personal point of view, but that’s not what we do,” he said.
Then, there’s the issue itself — its fate still hanging in the balance. Abortion has long been a third rail of American politics. Some CEOs are stating their positions more forcefully than Moynihan, either because they feel strongly about the issue or because doing so is good for their business—or both. Those who are loathe to speak out about abortion may believe they risk alienating 40% or so of not just their employees, but customers and shareholders—never mind local citizens and politicians. (BTW, parsing pro-choice and pro-life opinion polls is a fraught science all its own.)
The paradox is the more these difficult issues come to the fore, the more chief executives are being asked to weigh in. And they’ve watched with alarm as Disney CEO Bob Chapek fumbled the handling of his company’s response to Florida’s Parental Rights in Education Act, or what critics have dubbed the “Don’t Say Gay” bill.
At the Milken Conference this week, I asked Mary Barra, CEO of GM—and Disney board member—about this.
Serwer: Social issues are difficult right now. How do you think about that?
Barra: “Well, at General Motors, we really focus on what are our values, and because we know our employees joined the company, because they want to join a company that has, you know, values that they share. And so when we make statements, it’s usually around our values of what we believe. And, you know, General Motors stands for inclusion, we want everyone to participate in our all electric future. And we value all of our customers and all of our employees. So that’s our focus. And when we make statements, it’s associated with our values and what we believe.”
Not a lot of meat on them bones, but to be fair, depending on where you sit and what you believe, it’s tricky stuff.
Last Saturday in Omaha I listened as Warren Buffett offered sage context at his annual meeting:
“…The last time that the country was [this] tribal was when I was a kid and Roosevelt was in. Either you hated Roosevelt, or you loved him… People are always going to be partisan. They’re going to have religious beliefs. They [always] had a certain amount of tribal[ism] always…but I don’t think it’s a good development for society…”
As for abortion rights specifically, the controversy is both a moral debate between a women’s right to choose and when life begins, and a political one over which entity should adjudicate that question, federal or state government. With the potential demise of Roe v. Wade, state abortion laws, which are already quite varied, will become even more so, further accentuating the distinction between blue states and red states. Will it follow that we will have blue companies and red companies? Well, we kind of already do.
As Yahoo Finance’s Alexis Keenan reports: “Amazon (AMZN), Apple (AAPL), Bumble (BMBL), Citigroup (C), Levi Strauss (LEVI), Match Group (MTCH), and Yelp (YELP) reimburse travel expenses incurred to obtain abortion care that’s legally unavailable within their home state.
Meanwhile, Salesforce (CRM) is offering to pick up moving expenses for its employees who live in a state with an abortion ban exceeding that of Roe, and move to another without such restrictions.”
On the other hand companies like Walmart, American Airlines, and the aforementioned Disney have made no statements. As for CEOs who are in favor of overturning Roe v. Wade, I’m sure they’re some out there, but I couldn’t find any. However, The New York Times reports this on a related note:
“In September, John Gibson, the chief executive of Tripwire Interactive, a gaming company based in Georgia, wrote on Twitter that he was “proud” of the Supreme Court for “affirming the Texas law banning abortion for babies with a heartbeat.” His comments angered colleagues, and within a few days he was replaced.”
CEOs who are pro-life may be keeping mum because they’re scared of losing their jobs. But if abortion is such a divisive issue, why are pro-choice CEOs speaking out? If conservative CEOs think it’s because they’ll be attacked by the woke, Twitter troll mob, well, the un-woke Twitter troll mob is none too friendly, either.
It’s not a coincidence that the demise of constructive government (aka gridlock) has occurred at the same time we’re seeing companies having to step into the political and social arena, i.e. practice stakeholder capitalism. Someone or something has to fill the breach and take the lead. I’m glad CEOs are stepping up in many cases, but it really isn’t their purview. We need lawmakers to come together and do their jobs,
George Mitchell, a Democrat and former Senate Majority Leader, once told me he had dinner with his GOP counterpart, the late Bob Dole, every week without fail in the early 1990s. And then there’s this from an obituary this week in the New York Times of Norman Mineta, former congressman and cabinet member who as a Japanese American was interned in a U.S. prison camp as a boy: “Mr. Mineta quickly made it clear that, for him, transportation was not partisan. ‘There are no Democratic or Republican highways,’ he told reporters.”
Sadly, the tribal trolls disagree.