In 2020, the Board of Amazon.com was presented with a shareholder resolution on viewpoint diversity. Specifically, shareholders were calling upon the world’s largest Internet retailer to issue a report “evaluating the range of risks and costs associated with discriminating against different social, political, and religious viewpoints.”
The resolution was proposed almost a year before Amazon’s removal of “When Harry Became Sally: Responding to the Transgender Moment”—one of multiple high-profile cases of what appears to be ideologically motivated censorship.
Unfortunately, Amazon’s board passed up on this opportunity to commit resources toward this crucial area. In its Notice of 2020 Annual Meeting of Shareholders and Proxy Statement, the board recommended that shareholders vote against adopting the resolution.
“Shareholders are not asking Amazon.com to somehow become a stalwart defender of conservative values,” Robert Netzly, CEO of Inspire Investing—which collaborated with Alliance Defending Freedom to launch Viewpoint Diversity Score—wrote at the time. “All they are requesting is that Amazon.com provide a transparent reporting on its stated commitment to diversity, something that the Board of Directors should be quick to embrace as it is their fiduciary responsibility to ensure the company is living up to its promises.
Amazon touts a commitment to transparency, inclusion, and diversity, yet it is dodging requests by its shareholders for reports demonstrating its fidelity to those promises. Shareholders have a right to know whether Amazon is enforcing its policies in a manner that discriminates against certain views and using its resources to support legislative proposals that undermine free speech and religious freedom.
And of course, Amazon is not alone in this hypocrisy. Presented with a shareholder proposal seeking political diversity on its Board, Apple bypassed its shareholders and asked the Securities and Exchange Commission to prevent shareholders from voting on it.
Given their history of evading shareholder accountability on their commitments to viewpoint diversity, it’s not surprising that Amazon and Apple were among the 48 of 50 publicly traded companies who failed to substantively respond to Inspire Insight’s Viewpoint Diversity Survey, which collects information relevant to over 40 percent of the questions that comprise the Viewpoint Diversity Score 2022 Business Index.
Companies need to cultivate trust
As tech entrepreneur Peter Rex put it in an op-ed when Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter first showed signs of breaking down, “[t]he only good deals are based on full honesty and transparency.” That doesn’t just go for multi-billion dollar offers for social media platforms, but for everyday decisions like where shareholders choose to invest.
C-suite leaders can easily build trust by responding to shareholder and customer questions. The lack of transparency shown by powerful Fortune 1000 corporations poses an unnecessary threat to trust between companies and shareholders. And transparency is far more than a buzzword. Employees may report to the CEO, but the CEO and board also have a boss: the company’s shareholders.
Corporations’ low participation in the Viewpoint Diversity Survey is a prime example of this lack of transparency. Companies that declined to provide substantive responses to the survey earned zero points on at least 17 Index criteria. Many more questions throughout the Index were scored partially based on company-provided disclosures. Companies’ lack of transparency seriously undermined their performance.
Survey questions explore topics such as respect and accommodation for employees with diverse ideological and religious beliefs, vendor and contractor policies, charitable giving policies, public advocacy practices on hot-button social issues, and more. Leaders of publicly traded companies should be more than willing to make answers to questions like these available to their shareholders, workforce, customers, and the public.
When companies respect their stakeholders, everyone benefits. Businesses that respect people who hold diverse viewpoints are better equipped to serve a broader customer base, promote innovation and responsible governance, and recruit and retain quality talent. Businesses that respect those with diverse values and beliefs contribute to a public culture of trust and tolerance—values that drive a healthy economy and strong democracy.
Societal trust and tolerance are only possible when the companies that we depend on for goods and services, jobs, and a voice in the digital public square are committed to respecting viewpoint diversity. And doing so demands transparency.