CEOs are navigating an ethical minefield in the age of President Trump

Business leaders are speaking out against Donald Trump’s executive order on immigration. But the options—and the stakes—are different for every company

 
Donald Trump, Peter Thiel, Tim Cook

President Donald Trump meeting in December with tech industry leaders, including PayPal cofounder Peter Thiel, centre, and Apple CEO Tim Cook (Evan Vucci/AP)

What’s a responsible business to do in the face of a Trump presidency? This has been a live question for months now, and growing more challenging with each day that passes. For some time now we’ve known that Trump is unpredictable. He’s a businessman, but not a free market capitalist. He’s financially on the left except when he’s on the right, and socially on the right except when he’s on the left. He’s a member of the business elite who panders to populist sentiments. And most recently, he’s increasingly acting like a tyrant.

This past weekend, the challenge became more acute for many businesses.

The most pressing problem right now is Donald Trump’s recent executive order banning the admission of refugees to the US entirely and likewise banning immigrants from seven Muslim-majority countries. Besides being patently immoral, implausible in its likelihood of achieving in its stated aims, and legally problematic, the ban was also apparently poorly thought out, with little clear consideration of the challenges that implementation would bring. Further, there was little clear consideration having been given to —or perhaps just little concern about— the problems the ban would pose for businesses that rely on talent from the seven banned countries. But of course the problem with the ban goes beyond, well, the problems with the ban. The ban, and whether it might be broadened, and whether it might be followed by other rash decisions, also represents to the business community a troubling signal of uncertain times ahead. Most businesses thrive on stability and predictability. Trump has signalled his unwillingness to provide that.

So what is the business community to do? A number of prominent business people have already spoken out, opposing Trump’s ban. Leading the way has been the tech community. Netflix CEO Reed Hastings called Trump’s ban “so un-American it pains us all.” Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, noted that Trump’s ban has a human impact, as well as a business one: “We’re concerned about the impact of this order and any proposals that could impose restrictions on Googlers and their families, or that could create barriers to bringing great talent to the U.S.”

Are businesses leaders obligated to speak up like this? Clearly speaking up comes with risks. The United States now has a president who takes everything personally, who treats every criticism of policy as a personal affront. But in business, as in politics, with power comes responsibility, and if ever there were a question of public policy that represented both a humanitarian and a business issue, this is it. So a good case can be made for an obligation on the part of business leaders to speak up. If nothing else, leaders have a clear obligation to express solidarity with their own beleaguered employees, even if they find themselves unable or unwilling to denounce the ban outright. Something is better than nothing.

What else can a business leader do? Some have already gone beyond criticism. Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has pledged to hire 10,000 refugees over the next 5 years. Few companies can make plausible promises on that scale, but it does raise intriguing questions about what could be done. Lyft co-founders, John Zimmer and Logan Green, pledged to donate $1,000,000 to the American Civil Liberties Union, an organization working to fight the worst consequences of Trump’s policy on a number of fronts. Again, not something everyone can do. But the range of options deserves to be explored.

I’ll end with a quick list of 6 factors that any business leaders should consider in deciding whether and how to take action during a political and humanitarian crisis.

  1. How bad is the situation? Not every situation is dire, and you’re not obligated to jump on absolutely every grenade.
  2. Do you have special role-related responsibilities that suggest a particular obligation to either speak or stay silent? The CEO of a publicly-traded company has a wide range of obligations, including to shareholders and employees. When taking action jeopardizes those interests, it should be approached with caution.
  3. With great power comes great responsibility. Senior business leaders do have power, and hence have little right to shrug and ask, skeptically, “Meh, would could I possibly do?”
  4. What’s the likelihood that you can have an impact? We’re not all Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg. If your words won’t help, then you’re less obligated to use them. On the other hand, don’t dismiss the power that your words could have, not least among your own employees.
  5. What is the symbolic value of your action? You may not be able to donate a million dollars, but sometimes donating anything can be a show of commitment, of solidarity.
  6. Ask whether the issue is divisive only because of petty ideological disputes. With regard to the controversy over Trump’s immigration policies, for example, it’s worth noting that there are prominent American liberals, libertarians, and conservatives who have taken strong stances against them. This one, in other words, is not a narrow ideological matter.

Difficult times call for difficult choices. Sometimes those choices are defining choices. The choices you make can help shape the world, in addition to telling the world what kind of leader you are.


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