Are U.S. companies becoming too selfish?
A growing number of Americans demand that corporations create more social good or risk increased regulatory control
Among the many debates accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic, a key one for business leaders is the role of large corporations in society. Driven by debates about social issues and tax cuts, more and more Americans are joining the international discussion about what responsibilities big companies have to the rest of society.
Many large company bosses are not deaf to this debate. In 2019, for example, the Business Roundtable (BRT) —a club for CEOs — issued a now widely-discussed statement noting that the purpose of a corporation is to create an economy that works for all Americans. Specifically, the statement articulated five new “commitments” listed below:
Delivering value to our customers. We will further the tradition of American companies leading the way in meeting or exceeding customer expectations.
Investing in our employees. This starts with compensating them fairly and providing important benefits. It also includes supporting them through the training and education that help develop new skills for a rapidly changing world. We foster diversity and inclusion, dignity and respect.
Dealing fairly and ethically with our suppliers. We are dedicated to serving as good partners to the other companies, large and small, that help us meet our missions.
Supporting the communities in which we work. We respect the people in our communities and protect the environment by embracing sustainable practices across our businesses.
Generating long-term value for shareholders, who provide the capital that allows companies to invest, grow and innovate. We are committed to transparency and effective engagement with shareholders.
The list above is a stark change from the “shareholder value above all else” mantra that has dominated American business since the emergence of the Friedman Doctrine in a 1970 New York Timesessay that would influence corporate strategy for decades.
The BRT statement received criticism from a range of constituents — from institutional investors to legal scholars. However, the shift was generally accepted as a positive development across the U.S. business and political landscape. Some of the Nation’s most important CEOs were saying, in effect, that their companies would from now on balance making money for their shareholders against social aims.
Observing this change, Emanuele Colonnelli (Chicago) and Niels Gormsen (Chicago) decided to ask two questions with significant implications across CEO offices:
1:Do corporations live up to the moral expectations of the American people? That is, are they good citizens?
2:If they are not viewed as good citizens, what are the consequences?
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