CEOs Navigate Ethical Minefield in the Age of President Trump

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.

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

The latest problem 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 US 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.

3 comments so far

  1. Solstice on

    Found this blog post in a round about way. A Day Without Immigrants has stirred some ethics questions for me as a customer, not as a business owner and I was searching for some sensible thoughts on this topic. I read an older post from 2010 on hiring undocumented workers specifically in regards to the restaurant business. That blog was very was helpful to me as a thought provoking piece. Then, I skipped to this latest one written Feb. 1st and it is just excellent in articulating thoughts that have been mulling around in my head since Inauguration Day, simply as a citizen trying to take in all that has been happening politically in the United States.
    Your Six points are very clear and helpful in sorting though how to react; especially point #1. With a leader as you describe so well in your opening paragraph, it’s easy to feel every issue, every comment, every everything must be immediately acted upon. Your point allows for breathing time and mindful analysis.
    Difficult times call for difficult choices” really sums up this past year!
    Thank you for this clarity of thought. Your blog is helpful even to a non business owner such as myself.

  2. Amanda Witt on

    Let’s first identify the elephant in the room… Why does no one refer to Trump as President Trump? I find it funny that regardless of your political views or beliefs we are all still in shock that Donald Trump is POTUS.
    After the White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer stated the Trump administration is not rethinking its strategy over the president’s ban on refugees and travelers from seven predominantly Muslim countries from entering the United States. Most of the United States citizens took to social media. Many posted inaccurate footage of Muslims in crisis and even some videos were shown from the Bush era; however, just broken up to be more relevant. After the U.S. got their sense back about them they started fighting the ban with factual evidence and not opinion based “feeling”. (Wolf, 2017) The arguments challenging and defending the executive order have become clear. I believe this is what changed the view point of many.
    The Justice Department argued that a president has broad powers to act unilaterally on questions of immigration and national security. They said judges have only limited powers to second-guess such decisions and urges the court to allow Trump’s immigration order to go back into effect.
    Opponents concede that a president has some power on his own, but they say Trump overstepped that by banning people from specific countries and of the Muslim religion. They contend he violated core principles of the Constitution and ignored laws passed by Congress. (Wolf, 2017)
    To the rescue came U.S. District Judge James Robart in Seattle. He blocked the ban! Was this a step in the right direction or has America became soft? Is Trump really looking to make America Great Again or does he have his own agenda that will ultimately ruin our great country.
    The government relies on the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1952, which gave the president the power to suspend or impose restrictions on the entry of foreign nationals if he determines their entry “would be detrimental to the interests of the United States.” (Wolf, 2017)
    Now I ask you this…. Had this ban been implemented by let’s say Hilary Clinton would your views been different? To back up the claim, its district court brief lists eight instances dating back to President Ronald Reagan in 1986 when presidents blocked residents of certain nations — such as Cuba, Libya, Russia, Somalia and Yemen — from being granted admission to the U.S.

    Thank you
    Amanda R. Witt
    Drury University

    • Chris MacDonald on

      Thanks for your comment. But I’m not sure there’s much of an “elephant in the room,” there, as you suggest. People call Trump “Trump” for the same reason most people called (and call) Obama “Obama.” Plus, I’m Canadian. Trump isn’t my president, so I don’t feel compelled to use his title.

      As for your two final points:
      Would my views have been different? No. Religion-based bans are always bad — especially when they mysteriously exempt nations (like Saudi Arabia) that have actually been a source of terrorism.

      Past bans may have been bad, too. I don’t know. Past bad practice doesn’t justify current bad practice. But to the best of my understanding, the eight prior instances were justified by reference to specific threats, and weren’t based on a constitutionally-forbidden grounds (i.e., religion).

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