When Social Issues Affect Business

Microsoft had a tough time figuring out whether or not to support gay rights legislation in Washington.

All the pressure forced Chairman Bill Gates and CEO Steven Ballmer to do something quite rare: backtrack. On May 6, the company announced that it would support the legislation when it comes up in the next session (it failed by one vote). The decision followed a dramatic period of soul-searching at Microsoft.

Employees up and down the corporate hierarchy explored profound — and rarely examined — questions about the role of companies in contemporary America. "When should a public company take a position on a broader social issue, and when should it not?" Ballmer asked in a companywide e-mail sent out on Apr. 22.

What you do with your business depends on what you want. If certain social issues are important to you, that is fine to get involved. I think it is 100% acceptable to use your business to promote societal change (or lack of change, if that is your view).** But realize you may pay a price in the form of lost sales to people who disagree with you.

I, on the other hand, took the pathy of ambiguity. When I started a business I quit writing letters to the editor of the local paper, and kept my political, religious, and social views to myself. Starting up, the last thing I wanted to do is alienate anyone.

**This really depends on what the shareholders want. If you run the company but only own a small percentage of it and the other shareholders disagree with you, you can't promote your views at their expense. But if you own most of it or else all the shareholders agree, well, it's your money and time so spend it on whatever you see fit.