Opinion: Businesses must reevaluate their role in the public squareJune 1, 2022
Sandy K. Baruah
May 31, 2022
“May you live in interesting times.” While there is healthy speculation as to the origin of this famous phrase, there is little doubt we indeed live in interesting times. Economic, political and social issues are converging and changing, rapidly impacting many societal norms, including the civic role of the business community.
For business leaders who just a few years ago would have been best served by avoiding hot-button public policy issues, staying on the sideline is much less of an option in today’s environment. In fact, there is no sideline given employees, customers and shareholders are walking around with a fully connected computer in their pocket.
Employees want to know their workplace contributes more to the community than simply providing them a paycheck — they want to know their employers care about issues that matter to them. Customers increasingly want to know how businesses are responding to the challenges of the day — and providing more than a good price. Stockholders now look at a firm’s social responsibilities efforts as they make investment decisions.
The expectations for businesses to be engaged in key public issues have changed over time, in large part due to the erosion in public trust in traditional sources of information such as government, media and religious institutions. This comes at a time when the issues facing America and the world feel complex and intractable, and even basic facts cannot be agreed upon.
The pressure for businesses to engage in the public square has accelerated since the dawn of the pandemic in 2020. While not businesses’ chosen path, they found themselves having to support (or even correct) information about COVID-19 vaccines, turn meaningful statements about social justice into corporate actions, defend the basic integrity of our elections and promote the sanctity of ballot box access, take visible steps to address climate change and wade into global affairs when Russia invaded Ukraine —all while their day job is to provide accounting services or build a great pickup truck.
As Michigan’s leadership convenes for the 2022 Mackinac Policy Conference, these issues will be front and center. Like it or not, the role of a business leader is changing and now has a much greater public facing role. At the conference, the audience will learn how businesses are handling this tricky balance and business leaders will learn from each other when — and when not — to wade into public policy waters.
This is an important conversation as the business community is uniquely positioned to lead the way on a host of issues, either by using its influence in the halls of government, driving technical innovation needed to solve complex issues or developing business practices that help advance prosperity and equity for all.
Today, with an almost indecipherable barrage of opinion masquerading as news, social media strife, polarized political messages and disinformation, business is often the source for balanced and trustworthy information. It’s no surprise that businesses, according to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, are top trusted institutions and labeled as “a stabilizing force.”
This reality presents new challenges and responsibilities as increasing levels of disinformation impact society and our economy at a troubling rate. Business leaders are far more compelled to try to shape public debate as they witness developments that tear at the fabric of American society.
While shifting social responsibility standards for business leaders is fueling this change, self-interest is also part of the equation. A strong democracy, faith in capitalism and functioning societal norms are critical to a prosperous business environment — benefiting both employers and employees alike.
Sandy K. Baruah is president and chief executive officer of the Detroit Regional Chamber.