As we close out 2020 and look to the Biden-Harris inauguration, a key question has begun to emerge: will business leaders continue to take a stand on the critical social issues of our time?
While social leadership is not new for corporate America, the last several years have seen an unprecedented rise in CEO activism, coalescing around the Business Roundtable’s 2019 statement that the purpose of a corporation is to create an economy that serves all Americans. C-suite leaders have become increasingly outspoken in recent years – during which the American people have witnessed growing and vast economic inequality, social unrest, and the impacts of climate change. As President-Elect Biden prepares to usher in a Democratic administration, speculation has emerged around whether CEOs will continue the trend and both speak out and engage on the biggest societal issues of the day.
Over the course of this year, JUST Capital has surveyed the American public to get their take on the role they believe companies – and their leaders – must play in addressing the myriad of social crises of our time, from the COVID-19 pandemic to our nation’s reckoning with racial injustice to the challenges to democracy emerging from the recent election.
Across the board, we’ve found that Americans agree that companies have a role to play, and that they see corporate leaders as societal leaders. Specifically, when we ask Americans whether they think CEOs have a responsibility to take a stand on key social issues, more than two-thirds of respondents told us that they do, an increase over the last two years:
And as we look forward to the next four years under a new administration we recently asked the public whether they think it will be more or less important for corporate leaders to speak out on social issues. An overwhelming 79% of Americans say it will be just as important, or more important, for corporate leaders to speak out publicly on social issues over the next four years, compared to today. Only 8% believe it will be less important over the next four years. 47% of respondents believe it will be even more important, while 32% believe it’s just as important. 14% think the question is not applicable because they do not think it is important for business leaders to speak out on social issues.
Across party lines, there is agreement overall that it will continue to be as important, or more important, for corporate leaders to speak out over the next four years, though Democrats seem to most firmly hold this belief. 87% of Democrats see continued corporate activism as more, or just as, important, while 75% of both Republicans and Independents share this view.
It’s early days, but already we’re seeing corporate leaders begin to engage with the incoming administration on core stakeholder issues. 40 companies – including Microsoft, Citigroup, Walmart, and Ford – sent a letter to the transition team earlier this week, urging the U.S. to rejoin the Paris Climate Accord. And last month, Microsoft president Brad Smith shared his thoughts on the election, calling for “bipartisan collaboration and government and industry cooperation” on issues core to its business, from new data privacy laws to nationwide internet accessibility. Meanwhile, President-Elect Biden has signaled that workers will be central to its efforts over the next four years, promising to help create “an economy that gives every single person across America a fair shot and an equal chance to get ahead.”
As our nation transitions to the Biden-Harris administration, JUST Capital will continue to track these efforts, looking not only at how corporations act but at what the American public believes is most important. Stakeholder capitalism will no doubt remain in focus as both government and business leaders begin to align on what comes next.