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When to speak?

27 October, 2023

In the last couple of weeks, several of our clients have come to us with questions about how they should respond to the atrocities of October 7th and the unfolding humanitarian crisis that has followed. Many have an innate and very understandable desire to do and say something rather than stand by, in recognition of the horror taking place in Israel and Gaza. But they also recognise the complexity of the situation and the limits of what their proclamations may achieve. 

We see this playing out more broadly in the business world. The FT arguesthat the overall business response has been muted, with many leaders feeling caught in a bind – facing criticism whatever they choose to do. We have seen some big companies – Microsoft, Google, Goldman Sachs among others – make public statements, and in some cases, particularly where these have been construed as being pro-Israel, they have sparked a backlash from employees and consumers. Many others have been silent, and in some cases criticised for this on the grounds that “saying nothing is to be complicit.”  

For some commentators, this silence also runs counter to the growing number of businesses speaking out on social and political issues in recent years, taking a stand and sharing their point of view. And it thereby raises a bigger question about when and why companies should take a public stance. 

We think this is something that it is important to consider.  

In a widely shared Linked In post, Uber’s ex-chief DEI officer set out the way Uber responded to the 2021 Israel-Palestine conflict. This includes the following rubric for decision-making, itself adapted from Allstate:  

  • Do the events impact our business, our employees, or our partners? 
  • Will a stance help us serve our customers, earners, employees, or community stakeholders? 
  • Is this an area we have expertise in? 
  • Are the suggested actions consistent with our values? 
  • Can our voice add value or make a material impact on the outcome of the events? 

These are all good questions. Our view has always been that the business response to any social or political issue should be guided by its purpose as an organisation and what it does. Where the issue is relevant and the link is strong and clear, the business can and should have a point of view and stick by it, whether this is easy or not. But businesses shouldn’t intervene in or speak out on every issue that comes along. They aren’t and shouldn’t become cultural commentators or political entities.  

This doesn’t mean failing to look after those they have a direct relationship with who may be affected, focusing on their physical safety and emotional and mental health. It doesn’t mean backing away from using any available tools and resources to contribute to the reduction of suffering, now and in the future, or donating to politically neutral humanitarian organisations. Nor does it mean failing to recognise the emotional tenor that the world is in and seeking to operate with empathy and compassion. But it does mean taking pause before rushing to make a statement unless you can be sure it will contribute something of genuine value to the situation the world is in, now and in the future. 

By Larissa Persons

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