Adi Ignatius, editor-in-chief of Harvard Business Review, interviewed Brad Smith, president and chief legal officer at Microsoft, in front of a packed crowd yesterday to discuss the recent surge in corporate activism.
With Cambridge Analytics, Facebook, Equifax and other companies in the news for privacy concerns, Adi asked Brad about the moral and ethical responsibilities of companies and the factors that have led to an increase in corporate activism.
Brad believes there are a number of trends at play—the politically-charged nature of our times, the fact that there is a historically low level of trust in the government, an increased level of trust in companies, and a growing sense that organizations are more capable of driving change than our governments.
When evaluating whether to get involved in lobbying efforts or other initiatives, Microsoft looks at three criteria:
· Is it important to our business?
· Is it important to our customers?
· Is it in the best interest of our employees?
The last question is particularly critical. Brad shared that he’s found companies tend to think about employee wellbeing solely in the workplace. But, as he put it, if they have a nice place to work but can’t afford to live in their home of choice, or get healthcare, or marry the person they want to marry, then their work life will be negatively affected. When assessing employees’ best interests, he urged companies to look beyond the office to the community as a whole.
Brad talked about Microsoft’s experiences in shaping legislation, and how the company has had to make changes to its own policies to ensure it’s in compliance with the laws for which it is lobbying. He gave an example where Microsoft’s policy changes were bigger news than the passage of the legislation itself, with analysts suggesting that other organizations might feel compelled to follow suit given that Microsoft embraced the change.
Through these and other anecdotes, Brad and Adi underscored that it’s fundamentally important for companies to have a conscience. Calling it “a brave new world,” they said that companies have a responsibility to honor the trust people place in them and drive positive change.