Through crises, as uncertainty grows, for many people the notion of benevolence takes on greater meaning and importance. Do the organization, or my leaders, or my direct line manager and colleagues care about me? Furthermore, do I believe I am being treated fairly, have fair opportunity, that people around me are behaving with integrity?
There is a memorable proverb in Dutch – Vertrouwen komt te voet en vertrekt te paard. Trust arrives on foot and leaves on horseback. Trust is famously hard to build, and in an age of social media and fast news it’s perhaps never been easier to destroy.
Employees, like consumers, expect a degree of transparency from the brands and companies they give their money, time and energy to. They also demand a certain degree of moral and ethical alignment, at which point politics can actually re-enter the picture.
In the wake of President Trump’s 2017 executive order banning immigrants and refugees from seven Muslim-majority countries, ride-sharing company Uber faced a viral boycott tied to its chief executive officer’s role on the president’s economic advisory council. Uber CEO Travis Kalanick eventually stepped down from the council, yielding to pressure from disgruntled customers as well as frustrated employees. More broadly across Silicon Valley, where scores of executives and founders – but also rank-and-file workers – are immigrants, Trump’s policy became an issue that corporations found themselves unable not to take a stand on.
Trust is closely tied to brand reputation. From Edelman’s June 2019 survey across eight countries, the vast majority of consumers, regardless of age, income and gender, agreed that their ability to trust a brand was central to any buying decision. Some 81 per cent of respondents said they would only consider purchasing a particular product from a brand if they were able to trust it to ‘do what is right’, and 53 per cent agreed that every brand has a responsibility to get involved in at least one social issue that does not directly impact its business.
Understanding what ‘the right thing’ is can be difficult though, and the cost of getting it wrong substantial. Numerous brands have faced media backlash or ridicule and some have been accused of trying to reap commercial value from what many see as virtue signalling. The most basic rule companies can follow is to consider authenticity. Does it make rational sense in the eye of the public for me to align with this particular cause or campaign? Does this cause echo the values that I’ve previously displayed, or is this just PR spin? In 2017, German car maker Audi showed an advert during the US Super Bowl depicting a father wistfully watching his daughter driving a go-kart as he dwelled on all the hurdles she might face during her life on account of her gender. The intention of the ad was to draw attention to Audi’s commitment to providing equal opportunities regardless of gender. Inconveniently for the car maker, viewers and the media were quick to point out that Audi’s six-person board at the time didn’t include a single woman.
The same year, US bank State Street unveiled the Fearless Girl statue, which it had commissioned for display near Wall Street with a plaque engraved with the words ‘Know the power of women in leadership’. Also in 2017, State Street agreed to pay $5 million to settle charges that it had discriminated against female senior executives by paying them less than male colleagues.
More recently, in mid-2020, as protests erupted across US cities in the wake of the violent deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and other black people, many global corporations publicly condemned racism. As journalist David Gelles of The New York Times noted, however, ‘many of the same companies expressing solidarity have contributed to systemic inequality, targeted the black community with unhealthy products and services, and failed to hire, promote and fairly compensate black men and women’.
One example he pointed to was that the commissioner of the US National Football League, Roger Goodell, had issued a statement saying that the protests expressed ‘the pain, anger and frustration that so many of us feel’. But the NFL had previously banned players – the majority of whom are black – from kneeling to protest police brutality.
Likewise beauty brand L’Oréal published a social media post in response to the protests that read ‘Speaking out is worth it’, a play on its long-time corporate slogan. Many were quick to point out that three years earlier, in 2017, the group had dropped its first ever transgender model, Munroe Bergdorf, from a campaign after she had spoken out publicly about racism following white nationalist violence in Charlottesville, Virginia.
Gelles notes that ‘generations of well-intentioned pledges by businesses have resulted in only marginal advancement for the black community’ and that the coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated grim employment trends, one example of which is that fewer than half of black adults in America had a job at the time of writing.