Is #CancelCulture Preventing Companies From Doing The Right Thing?

In an age where people don't necessarily get all the facts before going on the offensive, companies that can tap into their hidden superpower of integrity will outperform.

It’s a difficult time to be a leader.

We are in the midst of an integrity revolution, and it’s coming at leaders from all sides. Employees want more than a paycheck—they want their life’s work to have purpose, and they see their personal identity deeply tied to the brand of the company where they work. If their company’s actions don’t align with their values, they’re talking about it on Blind and Glassdoor, blogging and tweeting about it, even organizing walkouts.

Customers are speaking up, too. They want to know what the companies they patronize are doing about climate change, racial injustice, gender equality and other issues. We live in an age of conscious consumerism, and customers are armed with information and aligning their spending with their values.

In the past, companies were often reluctant to speak about controversial subjects for fear of offending employees and customers. You no longer have that luxury. On some issues, a failure to speak up is viewed as offensive. But you better get it right—a poorly worded statement or a poorly thought out position will generate a backlash that can damage your brand and your career. Here are five principles to keep in mind as you navigate these difficult times.

1. Know your purpose. It all starts with your company’s purpose, its North Star. Why do you exist? If it’s just to generate a profit, you’re headed for trouble in today’s stakeholder environment. Be prepared to articulate clearly why what you’re doing is good for the world and for controversial issues, understand how your purpose relates to those issues.

2. Know your stakeholders. It’s not enough to simply say “shareholder value” in weighing decisions. Business is now more complex. You need to serve a diverse group of stakeholders that likely includes your employees, your customers, suppliers and vendors, and the communities where you operate. And you need to understand those stakeholders, what they believe in, and what they need to be successful.

3. Don’t say something just to say something. Pick issues that relate to your purpose and stakeholders. Airbnb, for example, is focused on promoting open travel and connecting humans from different backgrounds in an authentic, personal way—the company has taken strong stands in the areas of immigration and anti-discrimination, but has not veered into areas like universal healthcare or right to life that don’t relate to their mission.

4. Be ready, with substance. In talking to leaders who have been through a firestorm, they all talk about how quickly it happened, without warning. But with some thought, you can anticipate which issues might come barreling at you and be proactive by coming up with a detailed, specific plan. Savvy stakeholders can spot a self-serving, opportunistic PR statement a mile away. And thoughtless action can be deadly. The CEO of Goya Foods clearly didn’t think about how Hispanic community stakeholders would view his Rose Garden statements praising President Trump, and he paid the price with a robust boycott.

5. Anticipate blowback. It’s a controversial subject, so don’t expect everyone to love what you’re doing. It’s ok. But the worst mistake you can make is to dig in your heels on some “principle” that might not be worth the fight. Don’t wait until civil rights groups are lining up against you and customers are boycotting you—have the self-awareness to honestly reassess your position and evolve. Netflix could have argued with critics about its marketing of “Cuties,” but quickly recognized the appearance around the sexualization of preteen girls, apologized and reworked the marketing. People will respect you for reevaluating your position, apologizing if necessary and making a clean break from your past.

It’s a complex new world, but the right answer isn’t to dismiss what’s going on as simply “cancel culture” and “mob mentality.” Yes, ideally we’d love it if everyone paused, learned the facts and thought through issues a bit more, with empathy and a greater understanding of all sides in a tough issue, before going on the attack. And you can’t please everyone.

But we’re in the midst of a movement where people are tired of past misdeeds by corporate leaders and want more from companies who may have done collateral damage to the environment, overlooked poor worker conditions or cut ethical corners in a rush to satisfy short-term shareholder demands. This integrity movement is rooted in good and the data is clear—companies who can tap into the hidden superpower of integrity will outperform their competitors.

Rob Chesnut
Rob Chesnut works with companies to help them develop strategies to drive integrity into their culture. He was most recently the Chief Ethics Officer of Airbnb, Inc., a role he took on in late 2019 after almost four years as Airbnb’s General Counsel.