How a values-driven process can help you respond more effectively to the demand that businesses take a stand on social issues

We Canadians like to think of ourselves as immune to the attitudes and challenges we see playing out in the U.S. But if we’re being honest – and there is ample research out there to back this up – there are often remarkable similarities in our attitudes. Take the question of trust in government and who is best positioned to drive social change. While our level of distrust in government and other institutions may not be as acute as it may be in the U.S., Canadians are increasingly distrustful of institutions. Research also shows that when it comes to leadership on the issues that matter – whether it’s climate change, social justice, or economic inequality – Canadians are increasingly looking to business and business leaders – not necessarily government – to make change happen. As that expectation – and the pressure that goes with it – mounts, businesses are being asked by employees, shareholders, and customers to take a stand for change. The challenge is knowing when, and how, to respond.

This is a question we are increasingly getting from clients motivated by a genuine desire to do the right thing, but who are unsure of how to act credibly and in a manner that has impact. I thought it might help to share some of our thinking and advice on the questions we’re getting. Here are five thoughts for consideration:

  1. It’s not realistic, practical, or even necessary to speak out on every issue or incident. When you do weigh in, the decision should be rooted in your organization’s values and purpose, backed by demonstrable action(s).
  2. Being active on the issues of the day must be more than a communications exercise or it risks being performative. That said, your decision(s) to act and speak out must also be aligned with your enterprise-wide communications activities and objectives.
  3. Consider the connection between “in-the-moment” (reactive) responses, and your “always on” (proactive) efforts. What you say in the moment today, needs to be considered in the context of your broader communications efforts.
  4. Often the pressure to respond bubbles up from within an organization. It’s important to set expectations internally, and help employees understand the process and principles that will drive organizational decision-making about what issues your business can credibly – and should – speak out on.
  5. Accept ambiguity. The world is a messy, complicated place and you will never develop a fail-proof process. Get comfortable with not being perfect and with the possibility you might get it wrong.

In addition to these considerations, before acting you can also ask a series of straightforward questions to help ensure your words and actions are meaningful and will have the impact intended. Questions like:

  • What are the issues that matter most to our employees, customers, shareholders and is this issue among them?
  • What do our employees, customers, shareholders expect of us?
  • What have we said on this or related issues before?
  • Can we match our words with actions to enhance our impact on an issue?
  • Can we speak out unambiguously (i.e. no weasel words)?

While these issues are complex and there are no hard and fast rules that apply to every situation or guarantee easy decision-making. However, a disciplined process rooted in a clear understanding of your organization’s values will go a long way to helping you make better, more consistent decisions that can contribute to meaningful social change.