At the beginning of this year several companies found themselves in a bind. Faced with Trump’s first immigration executive order, business leaders had to make the decision to either react or not. Silicon Valley, with a known bent toward progressive and globalist politics, led the pack and many technology CEOs issued statements and tried their best to stand up to what they thought was contradictory to their business values. With an unpredictable president issuing unprecedented policy changes, that decision moment may have been the first test of many to come.
Aaron Levie, CEO of the enterprise cloud company Box, was quick to respond to the immigration ban. He quickly issued a statement, sent out tweets, and spoke to the press about the need to resist Trump’s moves. Though it’s just one issue, this example highlights the growing intersection between business and politics. For Levie, it’s becoming clear that it’s important for business leaders to have clear values and stand up for them in times of political chaos. In a recent Medium post he wrote that he pledged to “work with other technology companies to make our position [on immigration] clear to D.C.”
These policies issues that are beginning to be tested–immigration, inclusion, etc.–directly correlate with a company’s values. “There are some views that we don’t have respect for because of what our cultural values are,” said Levie.
Many companies considering whether or not to take a political stand question the cost-benefit analysis. Is it worth it when you might alienate future clients? But It becomes more difficult for business leaders to stay silent when policies directly affect their employees.
Taking a stance also sends a clear signal to both employees and customers. For businesses branching outside of the U.S., how leaders respond illustrates their values to their global clients as well. Box has both employees and clients outside of the country, so “it was very easy for our employees to see why we responded,” he said.
Levie says that he tried to look at what Box views as fundamental to its culture as a way to tell whether nor not the company should wade into the political fray. He described the immigration ban as a political decision that goes clearly against the values Box tries to cultivate internally. Thus, “it becomes relatively easy” how a leader should react to government policy that could affect a workforce, he says. “It will either reinforce those principles [or] go directly against them.”
For a company like Box, with a progressive Silicon Valley backing and a global reach, speaking out against the immigration ban isn’t too surprising or too risky. Tech companies often make small gestures of support on social issues. For example, in 2015, dozens of tech company executives issued a joint statement criticizing anti-LGBTQ legislation.
However, Levie said that he has noticed that companies beyond the Valley are starting to speak out as well. “What’s cool is you’re going to start to see more very large companies–companies we would have classically seen as being more conservative (taking a stand),” he says. “Ford even came out on the executive order.”
It’s true some leaders now are attempting to take political stances beyond just writing press releases. In February dozens of tech companies came together to file a legal brief opposing the immigration ban specifically. And Levie himself has joined the tech advocacy group called TechNet that aims to work with government leaders to promote a “technology-led innovation ecosystem.” Recently, Trump’s executive orders have taken a front seat with the group.
Similarly, investors aren’t seeming so timid about companies taking political stances, said Levie. “Investors are starting to recognize that there doesn’t have to be a contradiction between companies taking stands on something they care about and companies being able to grow rapidly,” he said. He added that Box’s investor relations team got a handful of messages thanking them for acting after speaking out against the immigration ban. “It was a pretty surprising moment.”
What’s most important is understanding how political changes could change an organization. Businesses weighing into politics are taking stands on policies, not necessarily parties. “What matters is the policy,” said Levie. Companies have the right to respond to “issues that affect [a business’s] social policy or business policy.”
Most of all, they are no longer able to say that business is apolitical. Issues like immigration, workers rights, and trade continue to dominate the national conversation and create new problems for business leaders. “It’s not that we want to be political,” said Levie. “It’s that there are policies we care deeply about.” He went on, “for anyone who thinks that politics and business don’t intersect, the reality is that they do today. These worlds are unbelievably intertwined at this point.”