After the news that Australia will proceed with a postal plebiscite on same sex marriage, Qantas, a long time supporter of the issue, was the first corporation to officially come out for the ‘Yes’ side.
Qantas is just one company on a very long list of large corporate supporters listed on the Australian Marriage Equality website. Other companies include Telstra, Vodafone, Airbnb, the big four banks, IBM and PWC, to just to name a few.
But do corporations really hold views on issues of public importance or are they just the views of the executives employed to run those companies – or the new hidden persuaders in the corporate social responsibility department?
Back in 1970, Milton Friedman wrote in New York Times Magazine:
The discussions of the “social responsibilities of business” are notable for their analytical looseness and lack of rigor. What does it mean to say that “business” has responsibilities? Only people have responsibilities. A corporation is an artificial person and in this sense may have artificial responsibilities, but “business” as a whole cannot be said to have responsibilities, even in this vague sense. The first step toward clarity in examining the doctrine of the social responsibility of business is to ask precisely what it implies for whom.
Friedman explained the concept of agency, where the executive is the agent of shareholders and is employed to represent their interests. For most of these companies, the owners are the shareholders. So are the CEOs of these companies representing the interests of their shareholders when they advocate for public policies that have nothing to do with their companies or the industries they operate in? Or are these CEO abusing the platform given to them by the shareholders of the companies they are supposed to represent?
Do the views of Qantas CEO Alan Joyce represent the views of his shareholders? Or are they just the views of Joyce and his politically correct spin-doctors in the CSR team? Does the stance of the big four banks represent the views of their shareholders, three-quarters of whom are mum and dad investors?
CEOs in the Australian Marriage Equality camp argue that they are advocating on behalf of their employees. This seems unlikely since they have allied themselves with a lobby that has actively opposed a plebiscite on same-sex marriage, denying those very same employees an opportunity to vote on the issue in the privacy of the ballot. Do the views of Alan Joyce really represent the views of his baggage handlers?
It is often claimed that supporting marriage equality is part of creating a work environment safe from bullying for their employees. In fact, many of these employers have a poor track record of creating a supportive environment for their employees.
PwC came under pressure when senior executive Mark Allaby’s involvement with the Australian Christian Lobby became known. Allaby resigned from the board of the ACL to remove the supposed conflict but later, when he joined IBM, LGBTI activists targeted his new employer over his religious affiliations.
The pressure on employees to support same sex marriage can be intense with some companies providing employees with rings that allow their employees to “voluntarily” show their support for marriage equality; creating an uncomfortable working environment for supporters of traditional marriage.
Lingerie chain Honey Birdette – previously in the news over allegations of sexualising its own staff and exposing them to harassment – held a flash rally in support of marriage equality that no doubt was also “voluntary”.
It can’t be said that corporations are advocating on behalf of their customers; many of these companies enjoy oligopoly market power. Traditional marriage advocates are stuck flying Tiger Air if they choose to vote with their dollars.
I would prefer not to know the political affiliations of my phone company. I’m happy to enjoy products or services from people who disagree with me; I just ask that my purchase not been seen as an endorsement for any sort of political view.
Companies have a responsibility to protect their employees from bullying and harassment but this shouldn’t extend to advocating for controversial political campaigns – and definitely should not limit what their employees do in a respectful considerate way in their own time.
While it may be the case that same-sex marriage is a good cause, the precedent that it is appropriate for large publicly traded companies to tell their employees what to think and believe is a poor one.
Publicly traded companies would be wise to focus on their core responsibility as described by Friedman in his classic Capitalism and Freedom:
There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud.
Justin Campbell is General Manager of LibertyWorks Inc.
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