Employees Want Ethical CEOs

Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, recently received a letter from employees demanding that the company put children and people above profits and cease doing business with ICE.

This call for CEO activism does not end there, as Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google, learned last week. He also got a letter, signed by over 3,100 employees, including senior engineers, demanding the cancellation of the company's contract with the Pentagon for integrating artificial intelligence into weaponry.  

Today's CEOs must now look beyond the bottom line, and take an ethical stand on issues that matter to their employees if they want to retain top people, particularly millennial talent. In a recent Deloitte survey, nearly 60% of millennials who see their employers as prioritizing profits plan to leave within just two years. Fidelity reports that 58% of millennials rank job offers that align with their values as more important than a high salary.

It is tempting to say that these employees do not understand that CEOs are not ethicists. They are also employees of the business with a fiduciary responsibility to turn a profit for shareholders. Taking a stance on controversial ethical issues is not part of their job description.

Well, times are changing: The scope of CEO responsibility must expand to address employee demands that employers be value-driven. The truth is you cannot run a business without employees, and in the highly competitive tech world, CEOs can ill afford to alienate talent.

This fact was surely not lost on the raft of CEOs (including, among many others, Tim Cook of Apple, Elon Musk of Tesla, Dara Khosrowshahi of Uber, Chuck Robbins of Cisco, and, of course, Nadella of Microsoft) that spoke out against the child-separation policy that gave birth to #KeepFamiliesTogether. Nadella also spoke about the ethics of artificial intelligence last week: “We need to ask ourselves not only what computers can do but what computers should do,” he said. And Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America, takes an even broader view. “Our jobs as CEOs now include driving what we think is right,” Moynihan said. “It’s not exactly political activism, but it is action on issues beyond business.”

It is also tempting to respond that CEOs are not politicians, and that mixing business and politics is bad business. But the world doesn't work this way. CEOs and the businesses they represent have long played a part in the political process. They have lobbyists, they fund political action committees, and since Citizens United, they make donations of literally untold millions to political candidates.

So, what is new in today’s world is not that CEOs and businesses dabble in politics. What is new is that employees are holding them accountable for doing the right thing.

If Microsoft, Google, and other companies want to retain the talent that allows them to better serve customers and society, which keeps them competitive and profitable, then ethical reflection and decision-making must become one of their primary responsibilities. Employees are demanding it.