Seattle protests Black Lives Matter
Companies have been only too willing to be seen on the right side of Black Lives Matter movement. That's fine, but make sure the reasons are transparent. Image Credit: Reuters

Earlier this month, Amazon took to Twitter to call for an end to “the inequitable and brutal treatment of black people”.

The ecommerce giant displayed a Black Lives Matter banner on its website too, making clear where it stood on the topic of racial discrimination worldwide. Few sound-minded people would argue against calls for equality, but rather than being met with rapturous applause, Amazon’s actions were widely criticised for not going far enough.

Why? Because Amazon sells its facial recognition software to police forces in the US. Or at least it did.

Amid a growing backlash, the powers-that-be at Amazon HQ swiftly introduced a one-year moratorium on police use of its artificial intelligence software Rekognition. The decision effectively cut the company’s ties to law enforcement and entrenched it in the murky world of politics.

On the surface of it, the ban is a temporary move until a better regulatory framework is devised, but the mark it leaves is indelible, and I’m left pondering the question – and not for the first time – over whether business and politics mix.

When to pitch in or stay mute

For me this is not about picking sides, shaming the police, or criticizing specific companies. Nor do I want to hone-in on the current wave of protests sweeping the globe – or any other campaign that has gone before. The issue I want to discuss is of a broader, more philosophical nature; it’s about the role of business in tackling political and societal issues, and the duty of companies to voice their opinions... or not.

So, after much thought, here’s where I’m at. When it comes to the corporate world, the problem is not about companies forming judgements and voicing them. The problem is one of hypocrisy.

A forked tongue

The way I see it, if a corporation chooses to weigh in on a topic, that’s fine, so long as its opinion is in keeping with its philosophy and the way it does business day-to-day. In fact, neutrality can sometimes do more harm than good.

If you claim to be environmentally-friendly as a company, then not speaking up on climate change or other such topics can be just as damaging as diving head-first into the debate.

Admittedly, in a world where politics is increasingly polarized, it’s hard to see how adopting a particular stance could not alienate some customers. But there are three qualities that supersede difference in thought. From the general public to company stakeholders, what people appear to value above like-minded opinion is transparency, consistency and leadership.

Say it out

A couple of years back, Daniel Korschun and N. Craig Smith wrote an article for Harvard Business Review that got to the crux of the issue. In it, they explain that people are surprisingly accepting of a company’s political viewpoints if they believe that the company is being upfront.

The authors cite the example of Chick-fil-A, an openly conservative business. In 2014, CEO Dan Cathy inadvertently disclosed his views on gay marriage, and while his words caused outrage in some parts, the long-term consequences appear to have been negligible, partly because Chick-fil-A has always been open about its conservative standpoint.

People value predictability too. So, when outdoor clothing brand Patagonia took a stand against President Trump’s decision to eliminate federal protection for two national monuments in Utah, the move was totally in line with the brand’s ethos and decades-long track record of opposing such moves.

In fact, Patagonia customers and stakeholders might have been a little disappointed had the company not voiced its concern.

Taking a political stand can even be a differentiating factor for companies that are prepared to be the first to speak out. Korschun and Smith highlight the leadership role Microsoft played in supporting the so-called “Dreamers” – illegal immigrants who arrived in the US as children. As they point out, such leadership appears to have put Microsoft in a position of strength, not weakness.

Don’t be afraid to stand up for a cause, just make sure you stand up to scrutiny too.

- Tommy Weir is CEO of enaible: AI-powered leadership and author of “Leadership Dubai Style”. Contact him at tsw@tommyweir.com.