Bridging Divides: The Role of Business and Civic Engagement in Addressing Polarization

Jul 18, 2023

In a world characterized by increasing polarization, businesses and business leaders find themselves at the center of a brewing storm. Action might come with backlash and silence could signal complicity. What can corporate citizenship practitioners do to mitigate the negative effects of polarization inside and outside their company and help others find common ground? The Business Summit at the 2023 Points of Light Conference explored this theme and the crosswinds that corporate citizenship leaders are navigating daily.

68% of Business Summit attendees believe that polarization has impacted their workplace.

Points of Light’s Chief Global Corporate Solutions Officer Katie Stearns kicked off the session with a focus on the business case for engagement. Although the question of whether companies should voice opinions on societal issues remains contentious, research indicates that, around the world, stakeholders expect them to take a stand. Depending on the issue, roughly 70 to 90% of respondents in the 2023 Edelman Trust Barometer said they “expect CEOs to take a public stand on issues” such as climate change, discrimination, and the wealth gap. The same goes for smaller businesses. Points of Light’s recent small business and social change research reports that the general public has high expectations of how small businesses get involved in social issues. For instance, half the public and two-thirds of small business owners ranked speaking out as “pretty important or essential.”

A 2023 Benevity State of Corporate Purpose report highlights that 88% of CSR leaders believe companies should be courageous and take a stand, even if it means alienating some people. With this much buy-in, it becomes a business imperative to determine a course of action and who better than social impact professionals to champion this work? Stearns doubled down on this point by highlighting the power corporate citizenship leaders have to positively shape the discourse and dealings inside their company, which ultimately trickle out into society.

“You have influence. Not just at the table with senior leaders when they’re deciding how to engage on an issue publicly, but also internally as interpreters and agents of your company’s core values, civic engagement strategies, and culture of service,” said Points of Light’s Chief Global Corporate Solutions Officer katie stearns.

CSR leaders can navigate economic and social pressures successfully by being prepared and joining the bridging movement as a safe space to invest in democracy and civility. Bruce Bond, co-founder and CEO of a bridging organization called Common Ground Committee, shared that, although media might emphasize our polarity, many studies reveal that Americans are closely aligned on major social issues. He also introduced their Ten Attributes of a Common Grounder as one of the models that companies can use to empower employees to have respectful conversations in the workplace and emphasized one of its most appreciated tenets to take winning off the table.

Then, Bruce welcomed three business leaders to the stage to share how their companies are navigating polarization in the workplace. The panel included Pamela Everhart, senior vice president, regional public affairs and community relations at Fidelity Investments; Nick Nottoli, director, reputation management and insights at Allstate; and Clarita Santos, executive director of corporate and civic partnerships at Health Care Service Corporation (HCSC).

The panelists agreed that the pervasive challenge of polarization requires companies to implement strategies that create civility and build empathy within organizations. Consistency in both corporate action and application of values is vital for gaining and maintaining stakeholders’ trust.

Here are some approaches that the panelists shared:

  • Authenticity is Essential: Senior leaders must recognize the importance of engagement and move beyond the sidelines. Demonstrating authentic reasons for taking a stand can help companies gather allies and build collective courage. Case in point, Nottoli described the societal engagement framework that provides Allstate leaders with a decision-making tree on whether the company takes on an issue. Criteria for taking a stand include: an issue that aligns with company values, impacts stakeholders, is relevant to Allstate’s business, and on which the company can meaningfully affect change.
  • Proximity Matters: Contact theory suggests that simply being around others can promote tolerance, acceptance and allyship. Activities such as volunteering together, offering listening and learning sessions, providing nonpartisan voter education, and creating space for open dialogue can help employees connect beyond political differences while also developing a deeper understanding of their community and the issues affecting it. To build civility, each panelist emphasized the importance of putting relationships ahead of any task. In fact, Santos mentioned that the CEO of HCSC is often quoted as saying, “it’s okay to disagree but not be disagreeable.” Social connection built through supportive and inclusive relationships strengthens an individual’s wellbeing and also the resiliency of communities.

“If my corporate social responsibility team is thinking alike on an issue, then we’re not thinking,” said Pam Everhart, senior vice president, regional public affairs and community relations at Fidelity Investments

  • Culture is Key: Since most of us spend half our waking lives at work, mutual respect built inside workplaces can have positive consequences for society. Employees are more likely to stay and thrive in an environment where they feel respected, heard, valued, and connected to a larger purpose. That culture should also be inquisitive and ready to explore an issue from all sides as no one person shares the same lived experience. Everhart encouraged the audience to question their own echo chambers and build “challenge networks.“ She said, “If my corporate social responsibility team is thinking alike on an issue, then we’re not thinking.” Truly, workplaces need to embrace having better arguments to enable the discovery of better solutions. As ambassadors of organizational values, every CSR practitioner has the power to influence and champion an inclusive culture.

To conclude the Business Summit, Founder and Managing Partner of MaryamB and Co-Founder of NYCNext Maryam Banikarim took the stage to share a story of a recent project she dubbed, The Longest Table. Put simply, during the COVID-19 lockdowns in 2020, she and her New York City neighbors hosted an outdoor meal where more than 500 community members came together – even those who might not normally break bread together. This simple act of community building is now being replicated around the world. She ended her keynote with two significant learnings from the project that resonated with attendees: it takes just a few to build a movement and that there is no better time for “we, not me.”

In today’s polarized world, businesses have a significant role to play in helping society find common ground. Although challenges persist, there are strategies that can promote empathy and mitigate the negative impacts of polarization. By embracing these strategies, companies can foster a sense of purpose, enhance employee wellbeing, and contribute to a more cohesive and inclusive society. As CSR leaders can demonstrate, community engagement breeds belonging and service truly unites.

Points of Light

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