Business leaders’ awkward political position.
What do you do if you’re a famous CEO, and the president of the United States has asked you to serve on his Strategic and Policy Forum, you’ve agreed to do so—and then the president issues an order forbidding some of your employees from entering the U.S., or from returning home if they live here and were out of the country?
It isn’t a hypothetical question. On Saturday, a Cleveland Clinic doctor returning from an overseas trip was refused entry to the U.S. She was born in Saudi Arabia and also carries a Sudanese passport; she was forced to return to Saudi Arabia. Cleveland Clinic CEO Toby Cosgrove is a member of the Forum. A Clinic spokeswoman told USA Today, “Since this broke, we’ve been very focused on our employee who was denied access to the U.S. and trying to get her back.” This could be seen as attempting to thwart the policy of a president who has frequently excoriated specific companies by name, and whose administration will powerfully influence the regulation of healthcare. But failing to defend a colleague would have sent a terrible message to the Clinic’s 50,000 employees.
That’s the leadership bind facing more than a dozen CEOs—Strategic and Policy Forum members caught up in the weekend’s hurricane of controversy over President Trump’s executive orders on refugees and immigration. The main issue for CEOs is the order banning residents of seven majority-Muslim countries from entering the U.S., even if they’re also legal permanent residents of the U.S., unless they obtain specific approval for re-entry, to be granted or denied on a case-by-case basis. For CEOs like General Motors’ Mary Barra, J.P. Morgan Chase’s Jamie Dimon, Walmart’s Doug McMillon, and PepsiCo’s Indra Nooyi, all of whom serve on the Forum, and all of whom employ over 100,000 people from scores of countries worldwide, the dilemmas are brutal.
Dimon and the rest of J.P. Morgan Chase’s operating committee emailed all employees over the weekend declaring the company’s “unwavering commitment” to them and saying the company has tried to contact “all JPMorgan Chase employees on sponsored visas who are potentially impacted by the recent orders.”
Uber, whose CEO, Travis Kalanick, is a Forum member, and many of whose U.S. drivers are immigrants, yesterday called explicitly for Trump to cancel the order and promised a $3 million legal defense fund for drivers.
Tesla and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, a Forum member, also bluntly criticized the order, calling it “not the best way to address the country’s challenges.” On Twitter, the CEO vowed to use his access to the president to press for amendments to the ban.
Most Forum members have not issued public statements, understandably. Will they speak up privately? That’s exactly what they signed up for. The Trump transition team said last month, “Members of the Forum will be charged with providing their individual views to the President—informed by their unique vantage points in the private sector—on how government policy impacts economic growth, job creation and productivity. The Forum is designed to provide direct input to the President from many of the best and brightest in the business world in a frank, non-bureaucratic and non-partisan manner.” The progress of the immigration storm may give us at least a hint of whether the group is working that way.