Jeffrey Kaefer: The Business of Social Movements

New social movements such as #MeToo and #BlackLivesMatter are pressuring businesses to take responsibility for systemic abuses by the very systems that keep those victims invisible. In effect, the movement has given business a new responsibility – to help “fix” society in order to become profitable.

That’s probably not what JCPenney chief executive Marvin Ellison had in mind when he wrote recently, “We are not responsible for the collective actions of others, nor are we members of a society designed for us to profit off of.”

Those words made headlines, but what he really meant was that JCPenney is not going to become part of the solution to #MeToo.

JCPenney is not alone. Many businesses have recognized that something has to change to help #MeToo make real progress. But social movements are strong, and so are their critics, who routinely shoot down attempts to help.

Companies must respond in a number of ways. One is to invest in mitigating #MeToo’s impact – for example, adding child care as a benefit to non-executive employees. This is obviously good policy, but some CEOs are also using the opportunity to change their business models.

In California, Terra Plana, the solar leasing company owned by Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway, is one of the first major employers to eliminate many of the same practices that the #MeToo movement is pushing as an alternative to the workforce.

The company announced plans last year to eliminate or change policies such as mandatory arbitration, unconscious bias training, a one-size-fits-all approach to hiring and firing, and “gender information” sessions for managers. The aim of these efforts is to drive down costs, by ensuring that “employees feel safe and cared for and receive the support and resources they need to raise questions and advocate for themselves,” in the words of CEO Hunter Thornton.

“We must look for additional ways to make [the workplace] as safe and conducive to an inclusive experience as possible,” Thornton added.

Many have embraced this opportunity, such as Robert J. Block, executive vice president of SAP America. Businesses that face significant, persistent harassment have an obligation to become more responsible. “As a business, we have an obligation to make a difference and I believe that is what this movement seeks to do,” Block said.

Another business in a social movement, Home Depot, has announced that it plans to join the company’s Trust Your Gut project, a companywide initiative to identify and eliminate harmful management practices. Such business leaders, Block wrote in a Huffington Post opinion piece, must provide positive solutions to what becomes “a crowded and competitive marketplace in a changing, or, any case, stagnating world.”

All this is no different from what “lean manufacturing” advocates like Carl Gandy and Jack Lescher wrote in the mid-1990s. They concluded that businesses have a responsibility to take responsibility for their suppliers’ practices. More recently, Bill Kirby, former chairman of General Electric, has called for a “new social responsibility paradigm” for businesses.

Kirby suggested that “businesses begin by asking themselves what impact their actions, products and processes have had on society, particularly on workers and the environment. Business leaders then have to identify and resolve that impact.”

Businesses must continue to be the solution as they seek to use the #MeToo movement to help change society for the better. Without that engagement, many people will just continue to suffer unspeakable abuses.

Jeffrey Kaefer is a program director at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. John Rydin is a consultant to international businesses and a contributing editor at The Hoya.

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