Photo: Mint
Photo: Mint

Opinion | Corporate activism can’t be left just to business leaders

Millennials who are part of workforces must also raise their voice on social and political matters

Last week, under pressure from the Chinese government, Apple removed from its online store the smartphone app that had been used by activists in Hong Kong to track police movements. Apple claimed the crowd-sourced real-time app was a threat to public safety and had been used for violence against cops. Given the generally peaceful nature of the protests, this seemed just another instance of a company succumbing to political pressure with a beady eye on the vast Chinese market.

Apple’s response has been no different from that of most other companies in similar situations. Earlier, Cathay Pacific Airways said it had sacked two pilots who were arrested and charged over clashes between police and anti-government protesters.

It is a familiar trend in India, where most companies refuse to play corporate activist, choosing instead to maintain the line that the business of business is business and nothing more. Whether in terms of cross-border alliances or markets and customers, India’s top companies hardly ever worry about the ideological, political or even social standing of those they do business with. So long as there are opportunities to be taken, regimes that suppress their peoples’ voices or multinational corporations that have blood on their hands seem not to present a moral dilemma to Indian business leaders.

Of late, there have been some exceptions, with a handful of firms making their point on important social issues. In July, food delivery app Zomato’s founder and CEO Deepinder Goyal rebuffed a customer who used Twitter to tell the company that he was cancelling an order because the delivery person was a “Muslim fellow". Goyal’s response on Twitter was that his company represented the diversity of India and had therefore no qualms about losing business that came in the way of its values. Ola and Airtel too had firmly ticked off customers who objected to being served by Muslims.

Laudable as these instances are, they don’t address the real areas of conflict. Even the forum chosen for these acts of defiance is the ineffectual and relatively safe one of social media. In person, Indian business chiefs tend to maintain a dignified silence on political and social issues. US CEOs have, by contrast, begun to make bolder statements. In August 2017, US President Donald Trump was forced to disband two high-profile business advisory councils after several CEOs quit in protest following his remarks blaming anti-racism activists and White nationalists for a bout of violence in Virginia. That’s unlikely to happen in India, with business chiefs unwilling to confront the government, either fearing reprisals or believing it isn’t their job. What complicates these issues is that there are multiple stakeholders involved. In the case of a listed company, for instance, the actions of a few executives could threaten the interests of shareholders. It is also hard to tell where a movement is headed in its early stages.

Corporate leaders today have to deal with these contradictions as part of their jobs. What makes their task difficult is that the bulk of white-collared employees have an ostrich-like attitude towards societal questions. Rarely have we seen a groundswell of opinion within a company that forces it to take a clear moral stance. In 2013, Mozilla’s CEO Brendan Eich was forced to quit within 11 days of starting his job after his earlier financial support for California’s Proposition 8—which banned same-sex marriage—was revealed, resulting in wide condemnation. Such CEO resignations in India on grounds other than performance or dissonance with promoters are rare.

Yet, the corporate world is undergoing a metamorphosis and, slowly but surely, the impact will be felt in India too. In a column titled “The New CEO Activists" ( that appeared in Harvard Business Review, professors Aaron K. Chatterji and Michael W. Toffel put it succinctly: “Until recently, it was rare for corporate leaders to plunge aggressively into thorny social and political discussions about race, sexual orientation, gender, immigration, and the environment… But the world has changed… Political and social upheaval has provoked frustration and outrage, inspiring business leaders like Tim Cook of Apple, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, and Marc Benioff of Salesforce—among many others—to passionately advocate for a range of causes."

Companies need to take up responsible positions on political and social issues because that is a part of their mandate. Even more, millennials expect that the companies they work for care for the world around them. Thus, a company’s response to social issues has a direct bearing on its ability to hire talented people who are increasingly sensitive to such matters. A company is the sum total of its people and it is they who its leaders must lead.

In a paper titled Organizational Political Ideology And Corporate Openness To Social Activism, researchers Abhinav Gupta of the Foster School of Business at University of Washington and Forrest Briscoe of the Smeal College of Business at Pennsylvania State University argue that “organizations tend to be more ‘open’ or ‘closed’ as a function of their members’ political ideologies" and hence “when firms experience activists’ protests, a liberal-leaning firm will be more likely to concede to activists’ demands than its conservative-leaning counterpart, because its decision makers will more readily accept the interconnectedness of the firm’s activities with the activists’ claims." It’s time for Indian millennials to speak up.

Sundeep Khanna is a former executive editor of Mint