In the early days of corporate social responsibility, generating consumer interest seemed to be the main goal. Investor motivation has become an increasingly important bottom line benefit in more recent years. Now CSR is flexing its muscles on yet another level, as corporate employees pressure their companies to stop doing business that aids and abets the new Trump Administration policy of separating immigrant families at the border.
The roots of corporate social responsibility
Corporate social responsibility is a mature trend with roots in the establishment of charitable foundations by high profile companies.
Triple Pundit recently took a look at the CSR records of two iconic US toy makers, Hasbro and Mattel, and in both cases the charitable foundation work of the 20th century paved the way for integrating CSR principles into company operations in the 21st century.
Companies like these recognize that in order to to keep growing, they cannot continue walling corporate social responsibility and ethical behavior off in a separate space.
Triple Pundit has also been taking a close look at companies like Levi-Strauss, where the strategic application of CSR principles has grown far beyond the factory gates both for the sake of ethical principles and bottom line considerations, too. AB-Anbev and Coca-Cola demonstrate how CSR principles can travel seamlessly from a company to its supply chain.
CSR is put to the test
Until now, company CEOs have spearheaded the pushback against Trump policies, at least in terms of grabbing the media spotlight. That pattern was in evidence immediately after Inauguration Day in 2017, when Trump launched a new travel policy targeting Muslims.
By midyear in 2017, executive leaders were also protesting Trump's decision to pull out of the Paris Agreement on climate change. In addition to protesting the move, hundreds of US businesses have taken active steps to continue promoting the clean energy transition.
The new family separation policy circles back to the so-named "Muslim ban," and that's where the tech employee empowerment movement is breaking new ground.
To put it simply, employees are on the front lines when companies strive to internalize ethical behavior, and that is bound to have an impact on the way they view their employer's business model.
That tension can be muted during economic downturns and in sectors where jobs are hard to come by. In the tech sector those two inhibiting elements have faded somewhat -- and in the meantime, the Trump Administration has put CSR principles to one test after another.
Workers using CSR to leverage company resistance
For all the pushback against Trump immigration policies at the executive level, the simple fact is that some of these same companies do business with federal law enforcement agencies and their partners. These companies are now directly in the crosshairs of blowback against the new family separation policy.
To be clear, shareholders are also reacting. The big difference this time around is that employee action is beginning to attract media attention.
One high profile example is Amazon. The company is getting a visceral employee response for the use of its facial recognition technology, Rekognition, by law enforcement agencies in support of the Trump family separation policy.
A recent employee letter from a group of employees to Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos has received wide circulation in the mainstream media and in financial media as well, including Fortune magazine:
The letter from Amazon employees to Bezos also cites President Donald Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy at the U.S. border as a cause for consternation.
“In the face of this immoral U.S. policy, and the U.S.’s increasingly inhumane treatment of refugees and immigrants beyond this specific policy, we are deeply concerned that Amazon is implicated, providing infrastructure and services that enable ICE and DHS,” the letter reportedly states.
The Washington Post also reports that Microsoft and Google came under under fire by their own employees even before the new family separation policy took effect:
Google responded to a firestorm of employee resignations and public outcry surrounding a Defense Department deal. Executives said they would not renew an artificial intelligence contract for software that could help the Pentagon analyze drone video. Soon after, Google said it was banning the development of AI that can be used in weapons.
When boycotts work: employee engagement edition
The sudden burst of employee activism is especially interesting in the context of the boycott movement.
Triple Pundit took note of an apparent rise in high profile boycotts in the runup to Election Day 2016 and afterwards, when the Sleeping Giants and #grabyourwallet campaigns took off, and we have been keeping an eye on the trend ever since.
Boycotts that focus on consumer behavior are notoriously difficult to sustain, let alone succeed, but they can influence corporate behavior on the business-to-business level. Specifically, boycotts can succeed when brands pull their advertising dollars.
The power of brands to influence corporate behavior became clearly evident last year, when the conservative pundit Bill O'Reilly lost his Fox show after news of sexual harassment payouts surfaced.
The threat of an employee boycott adds another element to the business-to-business angle.
That threat can loom especially large in the tech sector, where competition is hot for the best and brightest talent. With a tight labor market, employees who have a deep, intensive disagreement with their company over CSR principles have a strong motivation -- and a fairly good opportunity -- to look for work elsewhere.
Even if significant numbers of existing employees don't jump ship, the negative press could influence a company's ability to recruit fresh talent in the future.
Whither Facebook?NBC News has reported that Hewlett Packard Enterprise, Thomson Reuters, Microsoft, Motorola Solutions and Palantir are among the companies with active contracts at ICE, but it's too early to tell if the recent employee actions will spark a wider trend. External factors, like an economic downturn, could also weigh heavily on the growth of employee activism.
One tech company that appears to be unaffected by the uproar is Facebook, which is enjoying a raft of glowing praise by the media for hosting high-dollar fundraisers in aid of families separated at the border.
That's a fortunate turn of events for Facebook, but it's rather ironic considering that one target of the Amazon employee letter is the big data company Palantir, which was co-founded by Facebook board member Peter Thiel.
The letter reportedly demands that Amazon boot Palantir from Amazon Web Services, and a look at the company's business model demonstrates why.
Aside from the Palantir's involvement in controversial law enforcement practices, Thiel himself has a history of anti-immigrant activity. He first emerged as a registered delegate for Trump during the 2016 primary campaign and provided other material support to the Trump campaign through to Election Day. He continues to serve as an adviser to Trump.
Got all that? Triple Pundit will post and update if the ripple of employee activism hits Facebook and other companies, too.
Photo (cropped): William Warby/flickr.
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes.