2016 will go down in history as the year America’s corporate leaders became social activists. It’s a break from the neutral position big business leaders traditionally take in regard to non-economic policy issues.
Nearly 200 C-level executives and company founders signed a letter condemning North Carolina’s transgender bathroom law in March. CEOs for Apple, PayPal, Salesforce, Wal-Mart, Dow Chemical, IBM, General Electric and Bank of America are among those who have publicly objected to state laws curbing LBGT discrimination protections. Fortune 500 CEOs have challenged legislators in Indiana, Arkansas, Georgia, Mississippi and other states where laws allowing LGBT discrimination on religious grounds have been passed or proposed since 2015.
“Our jobs as CEOs now include driving what we think is right,” Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan told the Wall Street Journal. “It’s not exactly political activism, but it is action on issues beyond business.”
Small business owners have greater liberty to declare their social values through their companies. And roughly a third of them do, according to a new Manta survey on political expression among small business owners.
Thirty-four percent of small business owners say they make their political views known to their customers, employees or suppliers. Those who do, do so for a variety of reasons.
Most small business owners who are open about their social-political views said they feel a responsibility to promote positive values in their communities. Having a business that reflects their values was another strong motivator. They also reported that customers and employees reacted positively to their political views.
That’s the big question: Is a leader’s social activism good or bad for business? Wal-Mart customers threatened boycotts on social media after CEO Doug McMillon lobbied against Arkansas’ “religious freedom” bill. On the flip side, a recent study showed consumers who shared Apple CEO Tim Cook’s support of gay rights were more likely to consider buying Apple products because of his activism.
“We go to great lengths to maintain political neutrality in everything,” said Steve Wood, founder and CEO of ATLAS Mobile Technologies. The Delaware-based company makes a mobile app that tracks state law changes.
“Since our product has extremely broad appeal…we don’t want to polarize ourselves,” said Wood. “By maintaining neutrality we’ve accumulated followers and interest from both sides of the spectrum.”
Zondra Wilson, owner of Blu Skin Care, a California-based organic skin care products manufacturer, said she is “very vocal” about her social and political views.
“I post Bible verses to my social media page or I will say ‘God bless you’ on invoices. I have been vocal speaking out against Donald Trump, because I feel he would be a horrible president,” said Wilson, who is proud that her customers know her values. “I am a Christian business owner and operate under Christian/biblical values.”
Poll methodology: Between 5/2 – 5/4 2016, Manta surveyed 995 small business owners via on-site poll. The margin of error is +/- 3.11 percentage points with a 95% confidence.
This article was updated on 5/17/16 to correct the poll results. A previous version of this article transposed the percentage of small business owners who share their views.