The Real Co$t of Free Speech

Speaking Out
However, that thinking must be inclusive, says Daniel Riordan, CEO of Zurich Global Corporate in North America, a multi-line insurer. “I am a firm believer in First Amendment rights; and at the same time, I’m responsible for cultivating a diverse and inclusive work environment where no one feels alienated and differences are celebrated,” he says. “This means not only race, gender, religion and ethnicity but also diversity of thought, experience and culture.”

Riordan reports that during town hall meetings with employees, he makes sure he is clear about his strategy for openness and “then, I stay and answer all of their questions because their opinions are reflective of our community and our customers. We have a right to our opinions, but we need to think about how we act on them and what we are trying to accomplish together as a company.”

Riordan sees this age of permanent record as an opportunity for CEOs to have a chance to model “doing the right thing.” For example, after Hurricane Sandy, he and his family worked with Zurich’s employees to help rebuild homes. He posted pictures of his family’s efforts on the company website. “It’s a real positive for well-grounded individuals.”

Allen Perk, president of XLN Systems, a network-security company, agrees. He says when people know something about him, “they know things about my character and—as such—[they] can determine things about my belief and values and whether they want to do business with me.”

Still, Tom Saporito, CEO of consulting firm RHR International, says he is very careful about what he says, aware “that it could be taken out of context,” a tricky balance since “in our bifurcated society your perspective on one issue may tick off half the population—liberal or conservative.” Even when related to the company’s performance, say taxes or regulation, “a public stance affects the way the issue is viewed in relation to the company.”

Sometimes, context also plays a part in how a personal opinion translates publicly. Chick-fil-A CEO Dan Cathy made headlines in 2012 by taking a public stance on the radio in favor of traditional marriage. The interview was perceived as Cathy’s coming out against gay marriage, which led to LGBT kiss-ins at the company’s chain of restaurants. Yet, in 2007, when the company detailed its Christian values to Forbes, noting that it closes stores on Sundays so employees can attend church, there was no such outcry. While Cathy has not changed his personal views, he gave an interview with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution earlier this year saying he’d made a mistake and that he regretted “making the company a symbol of the marriage debate.”

Engage Without Alienating
Tim Tragesser, president of technology provider Polar Systems, says CEO free speech requires a fine balance. “It is a challenge,” he says. “You don’t want to be seen as pushing beliefs onto employees. Our words can get interpreted a lot of different ways. I am cautious about supporting sides of controversial issues from a corporate perspective.”

However, “the message is not to disengage from politics,” says Copland, who notes that companies and shareholders benefit from companies engaging in issues affecting communities. Riordan’s advice: “We all come from different environments and faiths and we don’t need to put that in a drawer, but we need to think about promoting inclusive workplaces that reflect the marketplace.”

The bottom line: There is only limited free speech for CEOs—because while everyone has a right to free speech, not everyone has the right to be CEO.

Sidebar: In the Boardroom: Vetting CEOs

 

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Cheryl Strauss Einhorn is a freelance journalist covering international business, economic, financial and political news and is an adjunct professor at both the Columbia Business School and the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. For more information visit www.cheryleinhorn.com.