What Should Business Say About SCOTUS?

Business must be political and healing, all at once.

When I was studying law back in the 1990s in the university town of Tübingen in southern Germany, one of the most interesting legal constructs I remember learning about was the country’s abortion law, specifically article 218 in the criminal law code. (On a side note, my surname, Leberecht, translates to “right to live” and is the namesake of a “pro-life” anti-abortion organization in Germany, whose convictions I do not share).

Twice, the German Supreme Court intervened in abortion legislation, and twice it stopped a liberalization of the law the government had proposed. In the most recent seminal ruling from 1993, the court upheld that the national government had the duty to “protect human life,” including unborn life. According to the ruling, which is still in effect today, women are permitted to abort during the first 12 weeks of a pregnancy, but only after receiving counseling and in compliance with other strict regulations. Interestingly, even during those first 12 weeks, abortion remains principally illegal, however, it is not prosecuted.

Health insurance does not cover the cost of the procedure in Germany, except in cases of rape or specific medical or social conditions. Women with lower income can also submit an application to cover the costs in all cases. Coincidentally, on the same day the U.S. Supreme Court (SCOTUS) revised its nearly 50-year-old Roe vs. Wade decision, German legislators nixed article 219a of the German criminal law, which prevented medical practitioners from advertising abortion services.

The German law, as well as evolving abortion rights in other developed nations, serves as an interesting backdrop for last week’s SCOTUS ruling, which essentially restored the right of individual states to decide on the legality of abortion and access to abortion facilities—a decision that is notably in defiance of the majority of Americans who have long supported abortion rights under certain conditions. After the new SCOTUS ruling, many states acted swiftly to immediately ban abortion. Twenty-six out of 50 states are certain or likely to follow through.

The SCOTUS verdict is outrageous. It’s a slap in the face of every American woman and, in fact, every woman in the world, as well as U.S. trans men and non-binary people, whose rights to abortion were also taken away. As an American-German citizen I am ashamed of the decision, once again made mostly by men in the name of women, and worry about the future reproductive rights of my now 12-year-old daughter, who is growing up in the U.S. And she is one of the luckier, more privileged ones. The SCOTUS ruling will disproportionately affect low-income and marginalized populations who had already exhibited higher rates of abortion and struggled with limited structural and financial access to health care before the verdict. This will, as the American Psychology Association predicts, likely exacerbate the burgeoning mental health crisis.

We could say the verdict had been expected given the majority of conservative judges the Republican party had installed as the result of a long-term project that concluded with Donald Trump—it was even leaked in May. But still, as New York Times journalist Jenna Wortham tweeted, “intellectually knowing that something is coming does not prepare you for the devastation in the body when it hits.”

Businesses’ response to the ruling has been muted. While LinkedIn has been flooded with posts from professionals and some brands that made their position clear, many of the companies that had boasted their support for Black Lives Matter and LGBTQIA+ rights, or most recently, rallied against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have hesitated to weigh in. Those that did—like Warner Brothers, Condé Nast, BuzzFeed, Vox Media, Goldman Sachs, Snap, Macy’s, and Intuit, joining companies that had already implemented policies before the ruling, such as Tesla, Yelp, Airbnb, Starbucks, Netflix, Patagonia, DoorDash, JPMorgan Chase, Levi Strauss & Co., PayPal, Citigroup, Google, Microsoft, Salesforce, Paramount, Nike, Chobani, Lyft, and Reddit—mostly just highlighted their commitment to supporting their employees’ travel to access health care in other states. They refrained from confrontational statements, often avoiding the term “abortion” altogether.

Facebook (Meta) even went so far as to ask employees to abstain from discussing the Roe vs. Wade overturning on internal chat forums. Fortunately, employees do not always comply. Six of Sony’s game development studios issued public messages in support of abortion rights after their CEO Jim Ryan told staff in May “to respect differences of opinion.”

While many companies have been wishy-washy, several female leaders have taken a clear stance. Dating platform Bumble’s CEO Whitney Wolfe spoke out against the decision. And Melissa Hobley, global chief marketing officer of OkCupid, sent notifications to app users in states with abortion restrictions to contact their elected officials. The company also implemented a pro-choice badge as an additional matchmaking filter.

There is a certain irony in all of this: companies that moved to lower-tax states, many of which are “red states” (e.g., Tesla and Texas), now find themselves in a bind. Lower-tax states are often abortion-restricting states, and some officials have begun threatening to punish local businesses that offer support for employees to get an abortion in other states (this is not without precedent, e.g. Disney got stripped of its special tax status in Florida after CEO Bob Chapek spoke out against the state’s new Parental Rights in Education Act.)

Again, this raises the question:

How political should and can business be? And to what extent is it a responsibility of top management versus employee activist groups?

On the one hand, the 2022 Edelman Trust Barometer tells us that business is more trusted than government or media, which gives companies tremendous power over shaping the political agenda in the minds of their customers and employees. Behind closed doors in the U.S. alone, the lobbying industry celebrated a record year in 2021, taking in $3.7 billion from companies to represent their interests and influence legislation in their favor. On a more public level, brands taking a stance on political and social issues has become more widely accepted, if not expected, especially when not weighing in on social issues might alienate woke customers and employees.

But is it beneficial if companies more overtly apply their power as political actors? What are and what should be the limits? What is the new playbook for companies wanting to espouse human and civil rights? Can they ever truly reconcile commercial pressures with moral clarity? If so, how?

A few weeks ago, in the wake of Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine, my colleague Monika Jiang and I wrote about what it means “to be a beautiful business in a time of war.” We called for listening and reflection rather than bias toward rhetoric and action. But as we witness fiercer culture wars, and more painful social injustice in increasingly divided societies, can attempting to bridge the divide and reach across the aisle still be a plausible strategy? Or is it paramount to assume a clear position and join the fight, at the peril of possibly widening the divide and furthering exclusion?

These are questions we will explore in our upcoming Beautiful Business Trip on The New Politics of Business, which we’re hosting online, July 14–15, in partnership with the BCG Henderson Institute, the think tank of the Boston Consulting Group, and More in Common, a nonprofit dedicated to studying and overcoming polarization. The two organizations, after having met at one of our annual gatherings in Lisbon, published a joint article on corporate statesmanship and the responsibility of companies to address polarization at their workplace—it is worth reading.

In light of the SCOTUS ruling and the timeliness of this discussion, we’ve decided to open this Beautiful Business Trip to all subscribers and members of the House for free.

Sign up here to secure your spot

To overcome division, we can look to CEOs as role models, to workplace culture and policies, and to brands acting as purpose- and values-driven stewards of social progress and integration. But we can also explore a path that seeks to unify the feminine and masculine forces within us—something we touched upon in our recent Beauty Shot on masculinity. House Residents Rudy de Waele and Çanay Atalay offer retreat programs focused on harmonizing these two energies as a key step toward “decolonizing personal, social, and ecological well-being” and creating “systems of peace.” “We all live right now in separation, not primarily because of political divisions, but because we are divided in ourselves,” they write. “Let’s end the suffering of the divided self and realize the wholeness that has always been inside each one of us.”

This may seem like self-help for the privileged creative class, with no substantive contribution to improving the lives of the many people who will suffer from the SCOTUS ruling. But is that thought process just a knee-jerk reaction driven by the old conventions of binary thinking, and sowing even more divisiveness? Instead of “either/or”, “what if.” What if the esoteric is indeed the most direct enabler of progress in the long term?

Profound social change will only occur when we combine the technocratic and bureaucratic with the psychological and spiritual; when we complement systemic and structural change with inner transformation. When it comes to politics, stances must be hard, but strategies can be soft.

Business must be political and healing, all at once.

An impossible task?

–Tim Leberecht

15 questions

  1. Are you political?
  2. Where in your body do you feel being political?
  3. How do you act on it?
  4. Who do you think can drive more change for good: politicians or business leaders?
  5. Where does being political start if you’re a business?
  6. When is a business too political?
  7. If a company practices political advocacy, is it more important for its employees or its customers?
  8. When brands take a political stance, does it create net total more belonging than distance?
  9. Do you continue to be a customer of a product or service you really love if you suddenly learn that the organization behind it supports fundamentally opposing political views than yours?
  10. Would you quit your job due to missing political advocacy from your employer?
  11. Have you ever been fired because of a political stance?
  12. Would you want to discuss your political views with all your colleagues at work?
  13. Can you think of ways for companies to be politically proactive other than lobbying?
  14. Do you believe U.S. companies practice more political advocacy than companies in other parts of the world?
  15. Would brands still be political if they didn’t have social media accounts?

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