Protesters gather outside of the Georgia State Capitol to protest the voting rights changes in Georgia in March.
Dustin Chambers | Reuters
Six in 10 workers in the U.S. approve of business leaders stepping outside of their usual lane and taking a stand on political or social issues, according to a new poll from CNBC and SurveyMonkey. Younger workers and workers of color are especially eager to see the corporate world wade into politics.
In just the last few weeks, business leaders have spoken out against anti-Asian discrimination, and in support of the guilty verdict reached in the trial of the Minnesota police officer who killed George Floyd last summer. In perhaps the most coordinated effort, executives from hundreds of companies banded together to release a joint statement opposing limitations on voting rights — a direct response to the passage of a new law in Georgia that they say is clearly intended to prevent people of color from voting.
The latest CNBC|SurveyMonkey Workforce Survey polled 8,233 employed adults across the U.S. from April 8-18. In the new survey, women are more likely than men, younger workers are more likely than older workers, and — most dramatically — Blacks, Asians, and Hispanics are more likely than whites to say they would approve of business leaders who speak up on political or social issues.
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Two-thirds (66%) of women, and 56% of men say they approve of business leaders expressing their views on politics. Approval falls as age increases: 65% of 18-34 year olds, 59% of 35-54 year-olds, and 55% of workers 55 and older say they approve. Meanwhile, 77% of Blacks, 75% of Asians, and 68% of Hispanics, all higher than the 55% of white workers say they approve.
Age plays a significant role in support among workers for business leaders speaking out, according to the Q2 2021 CNBC|SurveyMonkey Workforce Survey.
These are the same cohorts that have been driving much of the political activism nationwide for the past few years, such as organizing and participating in marches for women’s rights or for #BlackLivesMatter, or expressing support for social media campaigns like #StopAAPIHate. It’s no coincidence that their support for activism in general would extend to the corporate world.
Nearly as many workers say they would support their own company’s leadership if they choose to speak out on social and political issues as say they support business leaders in general who choose to speak out — but there are some caveats.
Just 36% of workers say they would unequivocally support their company’s leaders who choose to express views on political or social issues, while another 22% say they would only give their support only if they themselves agree with the stance taken. About one in four workers say they wouldn’t support their own company’s leaders who choose to speak publicly on political issues — right in line with the number who say they don’t approve of business leaders speaking out in general.
White workers are twice as likely as Black and Asian workers to think their company’s leadership should not speak out regarding political and social topics. The CNBC|SurveyMonkey data also shows that employees want to work for companies that value diversity, equity and inclusion.
In recent cases, employees have been more than supportive of their company’s decisions to take a stand on hot issues — they’ve actually been the ones advocating for the organization to take such a stand. After the passage of the new voting rights law in Georgia, an outcry from employees at Delta Airlines, which is headquartered in Atlanta, led Delta CEO Ed Bastian to reverse his support for the law. Five days after releasing a statement praising the changes to voting rules, the company backtracked.
As Delta’s experience shows, companies that take sides on political issues do not do so without facing some headwinds. The country is more polarized now than at any other time in recent history, and executives who speak out on behalf of themselves or their organizations risk alienating a substantial proportion of their customers and their employees.
Workers want their leaders to speak up, but the leaders themselves are still often reluctant, according to the Q2 2021 CNBC|SurveyMonkey Workforce Survey.
In the survey data, workers at the highest levels of an organizational chart—the business owners, company presidents, and C-Suite leaders—are the least likely to say they approve of business leaders choosing to speak out on social and political issues in general. Just 52% of people in this group approve of business leaders speaking out in general while 46% disapprove, including 32% who say they “strongly disapprove.” Among individual contributors, on the other hand, 61% approve and 36% disapprove of business leaders expressing views on politics and other issues.
Part of this may be strategic thinking on corporate leaders’ behalf: they are drilled to avoid saying or doing anything that could cause controversy, and political issues are often a live wire. But part of it may also have to do with the types of people who typically reach the highest levels of business: they’re less likely to be part of those demographic groups that want business leaders to speak out. As more women and people of color make it to the C-Suite, they may change that expectation that corporate leaders need to remain silent.
CEOs have a responsibility to their shareholders, but they also have to stand up to represent the interests of their employees and inspire their customers, and unlike the average worker they often have a megaphone that will amplify their message. That’s a powerful tool.