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More leaders putting morals, ethics on front burner in polarized times

McKinsey & Company parts ways with ICE, leaves $20 million on table
Kevin Sneader
McKinsey's new global head, Kevin Sneader, poses for a photograph after briefing the media in Johannesburg, South Africa on July 9, 2018. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko

By Todd Humber

Fearless. That’s one word to describe how many organizations are acting in this hyper-politicized era.

Surprising. That’s another word, given the financial risks to employers in taking a stand against populist movements sweeping many parts of the globe.

Refreshing. That’s the best word to describe the willingness of leaders to put their money where their mouth is and back-up corporate commitments to diversity and corporate social responsibility with meaningful action.

But despite threats of boycotts, negative publicity and perhaps even a Twitter-lashing from a world leader, many organizations are taking a stand against policies that go counter to their beliefs and mission statements. Just this week, McKinsey & Company announced it was cutting ties with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency in the U.S.

McKinsey has done about $20 million in consulting work for ICE, according to the New York Times, and decided to part ways with the enforcement agency in wake of the controversy over families being split up at the U.S. border.

“(McKinsey) will not, under any circumstances, engage in any work, anywhere in the world, that advances or assists policies that are at odds with our values,” said managing partner Kevin Sneader in a note.

Closing the door on $20 million in business is significant, even for a firm like McKinsey which has more than $10 billion in annual revenue.

Fox News host Laura Ingraham saw sponsors flee her show after she made fun of a student who survived the Parkland High School shooting in Florida for not getting into the colleges of his choice. Hulu, IBM, Expedia, TripAdvisor, Johnson & Johnson, Bayer, Office Depot, Honda, Wayfair, Nutrish, Ruby Tuesday, Miracle-Ear, Liberty Mutual Insurance, Atlantis Paradise Island, Jos. A Bank, Jenny Craig and Stitch Fix all parted ways.

Given that roughly half of the U.S. population is ideologically conservative and right-leaning, that’s a big customer base to potentially turn off.

The left-side of the spectrum has also seen advertisers take a stand against content or conduct they deem offensive. State Farm pulled advertising from TBS after Samantha Bee, host of Full Frontal, went on a profane tirade against Ivanka Trump, the daughter of President Trump.

CNN dumped comedian Kathy Griffin from its New Year’s Eve coverage after she released a graphic photo of her holding a prop that looked like the decapitated head of President Trump. ADT Security Services pulled its ad, though CNN acted quickly in terminating her contract — a move that likely avoided additional boycotts.

It’s not just big companies willing to wade into the political fray. The Red Hen restaurant in Lexington, Va., found itself in the crosshairs after it asked Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Trump’s press secretary, to leave citing her support for an “inhumane and unethical administration.”

That led the president himself to chastise the restaurant to his 50-million plus Twitter followers, opining: “The Red Hen Restaurant should focus more on cleaning its filthy canopies, doors and windows (badly needs a paint job) rather than refusing service to a fine person like Sarah Huckabee Sanders. I always had a rule, if a restaurant is dirty on the outside, it is dirty on the inside.”

But the owner of the restaurant, Stephanie Wilkinson, refused to back down.

“I’m not a huge fan of confrontation,” she told the Washington Post. “I have a business, and I want the business to thrive. This feels like the moment in our democracy when people have to make uncomfortable actions and decisions to uphold their morals.”

In my two decades of covering employers and human resources, I have never seen such a willingness for leaders of all shapes and sizes to take a principled stand. Not long ago, most of them would have gleefully buried their heads in the sand and argued it simply wasn’t their fight.

Finally, organizations have figured out that doing what is right — for their employees, their customers and the community at large — will always be better for the bottom line in the long run, even if it has the side effect of some lingering short-term pain.

That’s refreshing. That’s surprising. That’s fearless.

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Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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