Business as an Agent of Social Change

Its official; Milton Friedman was wrong. If we did not already recognize the limitations of Freidman’s views on the purpose of business, now major businesses are getting involved in not just critiquing Donald Trump’s immigration curbs but in backing legal challenges of these.

When we look at the business responses in more detail we see thoughtful moral and business arguments. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, argued that the diversity at the heart of immigration was critical to successful enterprise:

“We’re a nation of immigrants whose diverse backgrounds, ideas and points of view have helped us build and invent as a nation for over 240 years. No nation is better at harnessing the energies and talents of immigrants. It’s a distinctive competitive advantage for our country – one we should not weaken.” Source:

The principle legal challenge, filed by Washington Attorney Bob Ferguson, focuses on whether the curbs were constitutional.  Amazon has “prepared a declaration of support”. Microsoft stated it would be available to testify “if needed“.

Apple, Twitter and Netflix have criticised the curbs in different ways, suggesting a loss of core American values or integrity.

Other firms have questioned the consequences of the bans on employees and beyond. Google, for instance, noted,

“We’re concerned about the impact of this order and any proposals that could impose restrictions on Googlers and their families, or that could create barriers to bringing great talent to the US.” (Source:

The style of the response was also interesting, first reaching out to leaders in Congress (Google), thus expanding the debate and increasing options, and then offering support to those in needs, such as free accommodation (AirBnB), and even jobs (Starbucks).

Here we have the picture of major business’s taking responsibility for leadership in the moral debate. You might be sceptical about their intervention, not least after some of the debates about taxes, but you don’t have to be perfect to get stuck into a moral debate, and what stands out in their approach is its mature nature. (I will explore in more detail in another blog some shorthand ways of assessing moral maturity).

The businesses in question are prepared to stand up for what they believe, which leads one to hope that they will continue that work not just in their networks but in the workplace. These business leaders are speaking partly on behalf of their employees…so give them a chance to debate! But the simple fact of standing up for key principles is the responsibility of every person and every organization. Pastor Niemöller in the experience of Nazi domination sums it up:

‘First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 
Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me’.


I do not use that quotation to compare the Trump curbs to Hitler. The important point is that any political act which might affect core moral values has to be challenged and challenge cannot be confined to the few – the church, liberal lawyers and so on. Unless we all take responsibility there is the danger of moral erosion. It is the challenge, as part of social dialogue, that counts, and that will take us where it takes us.

This means that individuals and organizations (from board room to shop floor) all have a leadership role in society when it comes to moral meaning. And the fact that this role has been picked up by business is profound for two reasons. First, part of Mr Trump’s attraction has been the idea that business is value neutral and that it is all about performance. Hence, the flurry of executive orders is about demonstrating how a business man can get on with things. The business response tells us that business is not value neutral and that it matters how things are done.

Second, the business leaders have emphasised rational thinking, evidence (not least of enterprise), shared well-being and compassion. That is telling us that those values and practices cannot be confined to the great and the good and cannot be excluded from the business school curriculum. I will pass on to how we stayed focused on these in the next blog.

Simon Robinson

As ever, we welcome your comments and dialogue on this blog!





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