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Woke up! We want our corporate behemoths to tell us what they stand for!

Every week I emerge from a voracious consumption of the week’s news – informed, entertained but, on occasion, more than a tad baffled and bemused. 

By Lisa Templeton, Associate Director, B&C

This week I’ll confess to feeling the latter and it’s prompted by a recent column in the Daily Mail stating: “Get woke, go broke! From M&M sweets to Nike trainers, firms are turning famous brands into insufferably preachy social justice warriors. But their obsessions with polishing their halos will come at a price.”

The column criticises “corporate behemoths” from Unilever to M&S, Mars and Nike, amongst others, for their social conscience and sharing this with consumers. It links this “halo-polishing” to Unilever’s announcement that it will sadly have to make significant job cuts.

Every business, be they behemoth or SME, faces challenges over the course of its life, it is the nature of the business world after all, with more than a few graduates of the school of hard knocks. So, should being in business preclude you from sharing an opinion, rendering any such social commentary completely invalid? I don’t think so. If social commentary is to truly reflect our society, shouldn’t those with interests and employees across the United Kingdom and the world also have a say? Should they be censored and restricted to core business activities only? Is that what anyone wants?

Now, cards on the table, I do work in corporate communications, and it is our role to counsel that world. But I am also a former journalist who enjoys considering a wealth of opinions (and then making up my own mind, you can sure!) and I do genuinely believe people want to know what companies stand for. This is where that “damned if you do…” sentiment emerges because, be warned, you can be lambasted for being “preachy” by some and fall foul of others because your silence is deafening.

Surely the crux of the issue, or at least one, is who wants to work for a company which won’t be clear on what it stands for? Gone are the days when job interview candidates clammed up and shyly looked to the floor and/or shook their heads in sweaty panic when asked if they had any questions for the panel evaluating their suitability for a job. It’s as much the case in this economy that the corporate entity is being interviewed and evaluated too. People do want to know about corporate policies on climate change and mechanisms in place to achieve net zero, how they recycle plastic, see real evidence of diversity & inclusion commitments, flexible work practices and mental health resources.

And these new entrants to the workforce will most certainly hold their management to account should they fall short of these commitments and other employee expectations – directly in team meetings, in employee surveys, online on social media for the world to see and, ultimately, by demonstrating their displeasure by voting with their feet.

The World Economic Forum puts it like this: 2022 will be the year of accountability. Countries and companies alike will be judged on how they live up to their thought leadership and their public pledges, especially in wake of Black Lives Matter, COP26, and other major shifts in public opinion. It’s no longer acceptable for companies to make empty promises and leave behind the action. Data from Gartner shows that 36% of HR leaders say they struggle to hold business leaders accountable for D&I outcomes. The year of the reckoning has arrived, and workers in turn want to see things change on the ground.

In addition to this, the Edelman Trust Barometer 2022 reveals that businesses and NGOs are more trusted than governments and that most workers expect CEOs to be “the face of change”.

But if you are still tempted to believe that the workforce is not really that persuasive, nor a force to be reckoned with, what about investors? And not just the private equity funds, the extremely wealthy and influential, but the pension funds. Those who represent individuals like you and me who want to understand how their pensions are being invested. They are, quite rightly, challenging funds investing in areas which haven’t made, for example, the commitment to address global warming.

The corporate world is not merely judged, it’s marked. And, if its commitment to ESG – environmental, social and governance – is found lacking, all those powerful audiences it is accountable to will bite back, right where it hurts. The bottom line.

The column also highlights allegations of child labour in the supply chain of global brands, accusing them of hypocrisy and suggesting they need to get their sizeable houses in order before taking a position, any position.

Of course, child labour and exploitation are abhorrent, and I stand with anyone calling for immediate and decisive action on any suspicion of such behaviour and putting robust measures in place to rigorously interrogate these supply chain relationships. I’d advise any organisation confronted with any suggestion of such horrors to aggressively review its due diligence policies, direct all its resources to forensically examining that supply chain to establish the facts. What’s more, I’d tell them to be honest and accountable, to clearly demonstrate what went wrong and how it was addressing the issue, apologising, and making the appropriate restitution, if not beyond.

But, finding flaws in an organisation, no matter how big or small, does not and should not silence an organisation committed to calling out injustices and highlighting important and relevant issues.

What we all want, what we all need, is responsible businesses that clearly and vocally commit to doing the right thing, energetically campaigning for social justice and basic humanity everywhere and demonstrating this first from within. We want to see them challenging themselves because, like it or not, they have wealth, power and influence and we know how we’d like to see them direct these resources. As a force for good. Creating companies we are all proud to work for. And let’s not forget, when you disagree with them, you can tell them so and hold them to account. We are not powerless.




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