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Restoring Basic American Norms: If Not Business, Then Who?

FROM THE PRESIDENT: Sandy K. Baruah, President and Chief Executive Officer, Detroit Regional Chamber

Of the many changes in society that have occurred in the last two years, the role businesses and business leaders now play in addressing public policy and societal issues is among the most interesting – and potentially longest lasting.

In modern times, businesses generally stayed as far away as possible from making public comment on policy or societal issues. Until recently, the risks of taking a position on issues in the public domain were outweighed by the concerns of potentially alienating customers, shareholders, and government officials or landing on the evening news.

As we emerge from two tumultuous years, and head into midterm elections that may again offer another stress test to our suddenly fragile democracy, business leaders staying on the sidelines is no longer an option. Today, the expectations for businesses to be engaged in public issues has changed in many ways and for several reasons.

Employees Are in the Driver’s Seat, and Want Their Employer to Care

Employees expect a different relationship with their employers. In past generations, it was commonplace to spend an entire career at a single firm – and do and go where you were asked.

Today, employees are in the driver’s seat and just working for a paycheck is not enough. Employees today want to know the place where they invest the bulk of their time and energy is a place that contributes more to the community than simply providing a good or service – and they want to know that the leaders of their workplace care about matters that matter to them.

From social justice to access to the ballot box to climate change, employees expect their employers to be positive contributors to the society around them. Employees who don’t find that commitment in their employers will continue to seek employers that do.

Businesses Are a Trusted and Stabilizing Voice in a Complex Environment

Perhaps more interesting, is the role businesses find themselves in as a trusted source of information for their employees. Today, we are all faced with almost indecipherable barrage of opinion masquerading as news, social media strife, polarized political messages and disinformation – it is stressful, divisive, and polarizing. Often, it is businesses that provide the balanced and trustworthy voice of reason.

Employees looked to business to make sense of the events of January 6, 2021, and other hard to comprehend events where social media is of little or no use. It’s no surprise that businesses, according to the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer, are a top trusted institution and the business community is labled as “a stabilizing force.”

Employers need to embrace this reality and understand the positive impact they can play with their employees and the larger community as a voice of reason and trusted information in uncertain and complex times.

Restoring Norms and Preserving Democracy: If Not Business, Then Who?

Finally, businesses and their leaders feel far more compelled to try to shape the debate in the public square as they witness developments that tear at the fabric of American society and stability. Given the polarization in our politics and media, businesses have come forward to advocate for the basic American norms – civility in discourse, the basic integrity of our elections, protecting civil rights, and others – needed to protect our democratic norms and institutions.

Business didn’t ask for this role. But when businesses look around and see fundamental American norms and institutions at risk, and dangerous levels of disinformation, they are asking themselves, “If not us, then who?”