Blue And Red Companies: How CEO Activism Is Reshaping Workforce Politics More workers are demanding their leaders take stands on hot-button issues, and some CEOs don't shy away from the controversy. But they also must navigate the risks and benefits for their workforce.

Blue And Red Companies: How CEO Activism Is Reshaping Workforce Politics

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

How does it affect your life when your boss takes a political stand? Many people are finding out. The CEO of Nike, Mark Parker, approved an ad campaign featuring Colin Kaepernick, the NFL quarterback who protested police shootings of black men. Ed Stack, the CEO of Dick's Sporting Goods, pulled assault-style weapons from store shelves. Those are statements directed at consumers but that also influenced the way employees feel about their jobs. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: When Levi Strauss CEO Chip Bergh made a corporate donation of a million dollars toward preventing gun violence last month, he anticipated an impassioned response.

CHIP BERGH: I knew I was going to get a lot of hate mail. I knew I was going to get threats. I knew my family was going to get threats. And all that has happened. But somebody's got to have the courage to step up and say something needs to be done.

NOGUCHI: Some of those emails came from his own employees, who interpreted the move as hostile to gun ownership. He also received support from Levi's employees whose children had been in lockdowns at school because of active shooters.

BERGH: They may not always agree with every single position or stand that we're taking, but they appreciate the fact that we are willing to dive into these tough issues.

NOGUCHI: Bergh says activism from supporting desegregation to LGBT rights has long been part of the California-based company's history. He says in today's hyperpartisan environment, employees want to know where their leaders stand. And strong values are increasingly part of what job candidates look for in an employer.

BERGH: If you're in HR or finance or marketing, you can go work anywhere in San Francisco today. We have very intense loyalty to this company. And a big part of the reason we've got that kind of loyalty is this is part of our value proposition.

NOGUCHI: Aaron Chatterji is a professor of business and public policy at Duke University. He traces modern CEO activism to 2014 when Apple CEO Tim Cook publicly supported gay rights and Starbucks then-CEO Howard Schultz wrote an open letter about race that intensified with the election of Donald Trump.

AARON CHATTERJI: What's changed now is we're more polarized as a society. And it's much more difficult to occupy that middle ground without being drawn into the fight.

NOGUCHI: Fights that often play out very publicly. Chatterji says social media amplifies the voices of people who are most passionate about their loyalties whether it's to a political party, a news source or a brand. And it's changed business norms by allowing workers and customers to speak directly to CEOs. He says companies that recognize this play up their values to appeal to their core customers just as political parties do for their base.

CHATTERJI: A lot of people say, look; it doesn't make sense from a capitalist point of view or a market point of view to get involved in politics. And I think that's actually missing the point.

NOGUCHI: Corporate identities, in other words, are becoming more partisan.

MELISSA HARRIS: I think increasingly you're going to see blue brands and red brands.

NOGUCHI: Melissa Harris runs her own marketing agency in Chicago. She says companies are always competing for more attention.

HARRIS: They come to us asking for language that is more provocative, almost controversial. They want these messages to travel farther.

NOGUCHI: Of course many CEOs prefer to avoid politics and controversy altogether. But it can be harder to remain neutral. Experts say staying silent comes with its own downsides because a CEO's position can influence recruitment and retention, especially among younger workers. Leslie Gaines-Ross is chief reputation strategist at the public relations firm Weber Shandwick. She says a recent survey showed nearly a third of employees say they feel more engaged and loyal because they agree with their CEO's stances. But it can have the opposite effect among those who disagree.

LESLIE GAINES-ROSS: So I think it's a double-edged sword. And that's probably the hardest part of it, is that there is no playbook anymore for taking a stand.

NOGUCHI: She says today CEOs are navigating choppy waters. It's hard to remain silent on issues, yet there are risks and benefits to speaking out. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News, Washington.

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