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Bias In Business Can’t Be Ignored, From Google To Charlottesville

What is the role of business in addressing society’s ills?

Bias In Business Can’t Be Ignored, From Google To Charlottesville
[Photo: Flickr user Stacie DaPonte]

After a recent appearance on CNBC’s Squawk Box, I got into a bit of off-camera back-and-forth with Squawk Box co-anchor Joe Kernen. We’d been talking on air about President Trump’s relationship with CEOs. I argued that business leaders have a moral responsibility, one that is increasingly connected to business performance. Kernen felt I was being naïve, that corporate morality is a facade that is quickly jettisoned in favor of financial opportunity.

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Perhaps both things can be true–the responsibility, and the avoidance of it–but that’s not what we discussed after the cameras got turned off. Kernen felt I’d adopted a holier-than-thou posture by specifically bringing up the Nazism and white supremacy that sparked violence in Charlottesville, Virginia. Did Fast Company talk about moral responsibility when President Obama brought rappers who were former drug dealers into the White House, Kernen asked me? The implication is that I was applying a double standard when it came to President Trump.

I found the exchange a bit mystifying. Not because I’m not susceptible to bouts of righteousness; we all are. And we can all gain from a better understanding of the perspective of others (even if we disagree with them). But my point wasn’t about politics or about Trump, it wasn’t about Democrats versus Republicans. The point I was trying to zero in on was about business leaders, regardless of the political landscape, and their increasingly vital role in shaping and encouraging our culture and society.

We’ve been writing consistently about the values and mission that undergird business enterprises. A corporation is a platform for many things: employment, wealth creation, the distribution of products and services, and so on. But it is also a cultural platform, a network through which messages are sent and received about what is acceptable, what is laudable, what is expected in our social intercourse.

The decisions that big-name CEOs made earlier this month to depart from and disband the President’s advisory councils are expressions of social values. Some Trump Administration critics (including some of my colleagues here at Fast Company) believe these CEOs should not be praised for stepping down now; that they should never have participated with this president in the first place. Regardless, there was a clear message in this acute moment: that bigotry and violence cannot be tolerated.

There is, I believe, a clear through-line between the events and repercussions coming out of Charlottesville and the controversies and scandals earlier this summer around sexism in Silicon Valley. In both situations, the question arises: What is the role of business in addressing societal values? What’s more, what is the role–and, dare I say it, the responsibility–of a CEO in leading and directing that dialogue?

There are systemic biases of many kinds built into American culture, and it is not unexpected that those biases are reflected in how American businesses operate. (That it takes a crisis, and a death, to prompt some operations to address neo-Nazi hate speech is itself illuminating.) What matters going forward is how those biases manifest themselves. Gender dynamics are a critical front line in these efforts, particularly as they’ve emerged in the tech community (which likes to view itself as enlightened). The pattern of misogyny has been unmistakable, from Uber to 500 StartUps to the much-discussed Google memo. No one can credibly claim to be unaware of the structural gender inequality that exists today–from equal pay to board representation to funding opportunities. What is actually being done about all this remains, still, a work in progress.

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Our newest cover story delves into these difficult waters through the character of Whitney Wolfe, a CEO, an entrepreneur, and a target of sexual harassment. As part of the founding team at dating app Tinder, she found herself subject to hostility that eventually prompted her to leave (and to file a lawsuit, which was settled). She launched a competing business, Bumble, that as its core market differentiation gives women the control and power in facilitating relationships; the fact that it is signing up 50,000 new customers a day, in more than 100 countries around the globe, is indication of the chord that Wolfe has struck. By designing the business for more equitable gender power dynamics, Wolfe is not only expressing her values; she is advancing her business’s interests.

And now Wolfe is applying this same design solution to business networking, via a new BumbleBizz product that aims to give women at least an even hand in business networking and career development. BumbleBizz may not unseat LinkedIn as the central connection tool for the work world, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of the underlying values and mind-set that it represents. CEO Wolfe is on a mission to level the playing field for women, and her business is a vehicle to advance that cause.

All of the articles in our latest issue are about grappling with the cultural changes that are roiling this country. Color of Change is working to block the channels that hate groups use to get funding. The fashion industry is trying to figure out how to make working in the field more livable. And a cofounder of Under Armour offers some advice to the current CEO, who is still coping with fallout from customers and celebrities after making supportive remarks about Trump.

It goes to show that every business, of any scale, is a platform for social impact. That impact can be consciously considered, or it can emerge organically and often inadvertently. Business leaders can attempt to be agnostic, but the reality is that our actions and decisions have ramifications that ripple through our organizations and the individuals, families, and communities with which we interact. Is making the right decision, expressing the right values, a complicated and often excruciating task? It is indeed. But that doesn’t mean that we should hide from it. Our actions and our words as well as our decisions to stay silent, all of it is meaningful. That’s part of what leadership is all about.

About the author

Robert Safian is editor and managing director of the award-winning monthly business magazine Fast Company. He oversees all editorial operations, in print and online, and plays a key role in guiding the magazine's advertising, marketing, and circulation efforts.

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