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Business has to stand for something

With so much happening in the political world at the moment it is hard for business leaders to keep silent on their views, notes Billy Macinnes

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: MicroScope: MicroScope: December 2016

I don’t know if many other people saw this story reporting comments made by Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff, but I have to say it makes a nice change to see someone in business (and IT) being vocal about something other than their technology (or lobbying for economic measures to help make more money for their shareholders).

Essentially, Benioff was making the point that there’s more to companies than their products.”You should have a point of view, you should be clear on what your point of view is,” he said in an interview at the Code Enterprise conference in San Francisco earlier this month. “You have to be clear what your company stands for.”

In Benioff’s case, what the company stands for isn’t that hard to adduce given his very public opposition to plans by Indiana governor Mike Pence to allow businesses to use their religious beliefs to refuse to serve people. Along with several other CEOs in the state, Benioff co-signed a letter opposing the measure which Pence signed into law in March. He took it further in the immediate aftermath of the bill’s signing by tweeting: “We are forced to dramatically reduce our investment in IN [Indiana] based on our employee’s & customer’s outrage over the Religious Freedom Bill.”

He also cancelled all programmes “that require our customers/employees to travel to Indiana to face discrimination”. Benioff opposed a similar bill in Georgia.

Pence, who was forced to amend the bill to clarify that businesses and service providers could not use religious beliefs to discriminate against people based on their sexual orientation, is now vice president elect.

It is interesting, therefore, that Benioff chose to make his remarks less than a week after Trump and Pence were elected. The timing of his remarks suggest he has no intention of backing down from his opposition to measures that discriminate against people.

While he was careful to stress that CEOs should not be political, Benioff made a political point of his own when he said companies were no longer all about the shareholders. “We are shifting from CEOs who are all about shareholders and I think it’s becoming all about the stakeholders,” he said.

In other words, there’s more to a company than money and products. It also has to take account of its employees and customers and the wider society they live in.

Given that the person who would succeed Trump as president if any mishap occurs after 20th January next year is an avowed opponent of LGBT rights, there could be no mistaking Benioff’s intent when he stated: “I need to do everything that I have been doing. My values and beliefs don’t shift. I need to advocate.”

Will other CEOs be as vocal about these types of issues? Should they be? Business lobbying groups are always quick to pronounce on plans to increase the minimum wage or introduce employee regulation/legislation or change tax regimes but, for the most part, these political acts are not seen as such, usually because they are made in the name of business. But if they are allowed to make regular pronouncements on these matters without any fuss, they should also be free to lobby against those who seek to eradicate or diminish social freedoms for their stakeholders, such as LGBT rights and anti-discrimination measures.

It will be interesting to see if many other company bosses agree with Benioff’s view that the CEO is “all about the stakeholders” rather than the shareholders. You could argue, if you wanted to play devil’s advocate, that Trump’s campaign pledges to get companies to repatriate jobs they had sent offshore back to the US is an example of forcing them to work for the stakeholders rather than purely for the shareholders. But if you did, then Pence would struggle to refute Benioff’s argument that discrimination based on people’s sexual orientation is against the wishes of stakeholders.

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