When the 'business of business' bleeds into politics

June 11, 2018

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Dick’s Sporting Goods made headlines earlier this year when it announced that it would stop selling assault-style rifles amid the intense national debate over gun violence. A few months before that, Patagonia launched an advertising campaign aimed at protecting national parks from being shut down by the Trump administration.

Both of these actions represent companies stepping in where the government normally would. Is this a cause for concern or an example of democracy in action? Forrest Briscoe, professor of management and organization in the Smeal College of Business, discussed the increasing intersections between business, government and civic life on the latest episode of the McCourtney Institute for Democracy’s Democracy Works podcast.

“I worry about organizations becoming too aligned with partisan ideas,” Briscoe said. “It could strengthen partisan divisions if we've got the business leaders, the government leaders and the civil society leaders all aligned. While I think you can celebrate this new world where these three sectors are all mixing and matching and collaborating, you could also worry about some new kind of alignment that runs deeper."

Much of this blending between business and politics is happening under the umbrella of corporate social responsibility. Economist Milton Friedman famously said in the 1970s that the only corporate social responsibility a corporation had was to deliver a profit, but the landscape looks very different 40 years later as companies like Dick’s and Patagonia have shown.

Briscoe said the change happened in part because of the shift toward knowledge work, which encourages employees to bring their ideas with them into the office.

“In a way that's a more kind of liberal idea of organizational culture that’s more bottom up than top down,” Briscoe said. “But it's also meant that employees bring the other parts of themselves and their identities and their issues, including identity politics, into the workplace.”

In times of low unemployment and increased competition for skilled workers, this organizational culture could even be the deciding factor in where someone chooses to work. Briscoe said this has the potential to create echo chambers among employees who share the same beliefs and an organization that supports them.

But, these forces also can be used to effect social change — and much more quickly than government or civic organizations can muster.

“The leaders in these companies get together and say, ‘Hey, we could do this. We have extra resources to do this.’ Or maybe they make the business case for how they're going to make even more money by pursuing this, and that's more common these days,” Briscoe said. “Business leaders can't avoid these issues now, so they need to think about how they're going to respond.”

Hear the full interview with Briscoe at democracyworkspodcast.com or by subscribing to Democracy Works in iTunes or Spotify.

  • Forrest Briscoe, professor of management and organization in the Smeal College of Business

    Forrest Briscoe, professor of management and organization in the Smeal College of Business, discusses the role of corporations in a democracy on the Democracy Works podcast.

    IMAGE: Penn State
Last Updated June 11, 2018