What will we find at the crossroads of business and society in 2022?
That’s the question we at the Aspen Institute Business & Society Program posed to business executives, activists, scholars and journalists, from Billie Jean King to Joe Nocera. Our contributors agree on one thing: 2022 will be a year when we’ll see whether lofty promises on social issues produce real progress, or just make an appearance. Read on!
1. As concern for our democracy increases, execs will be under the microscope of their employees
As we move toward midterms, concern for our democracy will only grow—and businesses, particularly those that are active in the pay-to-pay system that dominates our political system—will again be under the microscope of employees.
In the wake of January 6th, it was employees who connected their company’s PAC to support of elected officials engaged in anti-democratic behavior. They will be checking again to assure executives align intentions (pronouncements) with actions. Rule of law and legitimacy in the eyes of the public are preconditions for a healthy capitalist system. Employees want their leaders to give voice to universal franchise and take another look at political spending that undermines our system. What might be possible if the preservation of our democracy is deemed a central business concern?
—Judy Samuelson, Executive Director, Aspen Institute Business & Society Program
2. Ethical tech moves from outrage to impact
After years of controversy over the power of “Big Tech,” during which those platforms only became wealthier and more entrenched, we will start to see a real behavioral shift. Firms will compete to demonstrate their commitment to ethical use of algorithms and privacy protection. Some will be responding to regulatory efforts from the U.S., Europe, and China, all of which will take major steps forward toward new legal requirements.
The biggest factor, though, will be pressure from customers and empowered employees. Intrusive uses of data, artificial intelligence applications that reinforce discrimination, and manipulative forms of gamification will become un-cool. And for the first time, there will be viable alternatives built on different business models, or on a different foundational technology. Web 3—a decentralized and inclusive internet ecosystem powered by cryptocurrencies and blockchain—will still be more hype than reality in 2022, but the first success stories will emerge.
—Kevin Werbach, Chair, Department of Legal Studies & Business Ethics, The Wharton School, University of Pennsylvania
3. The lack of access and opportunity for women of color persists
Sadly, nearly 3 million women were forced out of the workforce in the past two years due to persistent pay inequality, undervalued work, and antiquated notions of caregiving. A significant number are women of color. New research from the Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative and nFormation found a major disconnect between career gains and compensation earned by white women compared to gains by women of color. Business leaders must create systems, policies, and cultures that level the playing field for all women, and focus on increasing retention, inclusive hiring, and fairness in opportunities for advancement.
—Billie Jean King, Founder, Billie Jean King Leadership Initiative
4. Corporate DEI faces a fork in the road
2022 marks two years since corporate America (re)discovered racism and companies tripped over themselves to make public promises of progress on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in the aftermath of the murder of George Floyd. After years of pledge-signing, check-writing, and data-collecting, some companies will likely abandon their DEI efforts because they were never purpose-driven—they were only optics-driven. Organizations that are simply focused on appearing committed to DEI will lose ground to those actually being committed to DEI.
Companies that can do the following three things will stand out from the crowded pack of DEI underachievers and win the war for top talent: (1) tie their DEI efforts to an authentic sense of individual & collective purpose; (2) transparently demonstrate how they are measurably contributing to inclusive & equitable human flourishing; (3) wisely situate themselves within an ecosystem of like-minded organizations with whom they can co-conspire to compose the next movement in the symphony of human progress.
—Nicholas Pearce, Clinical Professor of Management & Organizations, Northwestern University – Kellogg School of Management
5. The end of private equity
In the end, it was their invasion of the hospital business that ruined everything for private equity firms. So long as they were only taking over fast food chains, or toy companies, or newspapers, Congress didn’t really care. But hospitals were different. Covid-19 put such a strain on many hospitals that they finally couldn’t bear it—and as they started failing, people in government wanted to know why. The primary reason is that the private equity firms that owned them had pulled out so much money there was nothing left for patient care. Even Mitch McConnell was upset! Elizabeth Warren had a simple solution: pass a law that said any debt used by private equity firms to complete a deal had to be put on their own balance sheet—and not the acquired company. It passed the Senate 99-1 (Rand Paul!) and the House wasn’t far behind. On the day it became law, private equity, the key destroyer of American corporations, died. Good riddance.
(Well, a guy can dream, can’t he?)
—Joe Nocera, business columnist, co-author of forthcoming book on COVID and the economy, and the host of the podcast The Shrink Next Door
6. Smart companies realize the ‘Shecession’ costs them a competitive advantage: working moms
Since spring of 2020, some 3.5 million moms of school-age children lost their jobs, took temporary leave, or dropped out of the workforce altogether. That absence hasn’t just upended their own lives and livelihoods—it’s changed companies for the worse. Moms are the most undervalued resource in the business world: we’re experts in multitasking, caretakers of culture, fast on our feet and slow to anger. Against the backdrop of a historic labor shortage, companies should be clamoring to hire us back.
Rather than courting folks to return to office with ping pong tables or beer on tap, smart organizations will invest in policies that support working moms: flexible hours, on-site childcare, paid sick leave and parental leave, and a culture that expects men to take advantage of these policies too. As we’ll soon see—the companies that empower moms will be more collaborative, more innovative, more efficient, and more impactful for it.
—Reshma Saujani, Founder of Girls Who Code and Marshall Plan for Moms, author of the forthcoming book Pay Up: The Future of Women and Work (and Why It’s Different Than You Think)
7. The planet becomes a key stakeholder
For decades now, climate change has challenged the long-term viability of the modern way of doing business. As a result, the planet has walked through the door of almost every industry as a stakeholder alongside employees, communities, suppliers, customers, and shareholders. The planet asks for many of the same things these other stakeholders: changes to supply chain, logistics, land and water use, emissions, materials, and alignment around a company’s purpose and values.
The best way for companies to adapt is also the hardest: reduce an organization’s negative environmental impacts and implement positive ones. Companies that judge their success by their impact on the environment, roll equity or revenue into climate impact, set and meet aggressive targets, and inspire other companies to change will be well-prepared for sustainable growth.
—Claire McDonough, Chief Financial Officer, Rivian
8. The fuzzies & techies become a team
I predict that 2022 will be the year in which the algorithm will more fully share the stage with ethical considerations. As a global society, we have received so many benefits from the technological advances over the past 20 years. However, the way in which these technological forces shape our values and impact our lives is not inevitable. The technology itself is value-less.
The ultimate goals of the technology are not predetermined. We, the people, have to decide what human outcomes we want. This growing recognition among a wide range of people will accelerate next year and will usher in a period of much deeper collaboration between the “techies” and the “fuzzies”. We will see the science of climate change intersect with social justice. Artificial intelligence will begin to lead with ethical considerations. Individuals will take more control over their personal data, leading to a more permission-based economy.
—Frank Cooper, Chief Marketing Officer, BlackRock
9. Leaders take responsibility to create inclusion in everything they do
Most leaders agree that diverse, equitable and inclusive work cultures are a priority, yet few have taken personal responsibility to drive the change. To progress towards work cultures in which people who are underestimated and underrepresented can fully contribute and belong requires leaders with skin in the game.
Empty words will no longer be acceptable. After two devastating years of a pandemic and inequities resulting in over 13 million women leaving the workforce globally, leaders have no choice but to accept that greater inclusion starts with them.
Business leaders will develop and communicate personal accountability for creating anti-racist, gender-balanced inclusive work environments. They will do the internal work to build greater self-awareness, cultivate a growth mindset, get educated about how bias shows up and take personal actions required to make change. I also expect greater demands for accountability on inclusion from employees, the wider talent pool, shareholders, customers, competitors and society in general.
—Ruchika Tulshyan, Inclusion Strategist, Candour and author, Inclusion on Purpose
10. DEI comes of age as a business growth driver
The past two years sparked a reckoning across health, gender and race. These developments led to societal unrest, but also important conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion. Corporate America has often lagged on these themes and struggled to develop a cohesive strategy for addressing these complex issues. 2022 will be the year that DEI is repositioned as a business metric with KPIs, tied to executive compensation, and treated as a true growth driver for business.
Diverse communities are too important to remain “under-served.” The U.S. Latino market represents 19% of our population and boasts a $2.7 trillion GDP. African American consumer expenditures totaled $835 billion, increasing five percent annually over the past two decades.
We’ve seen great strides in many business sectors, including sports, which has a unique and influential role to positively impact society. But it is now time for ALL sectors to wake up, focus on the enormous opportunity these diverse communities represent, and benefit along the way. 2022 will be the year when DEI is rightfully recognized as a competitive business advantage.
—Xavier A. Gutierrez, President & CEO of the Arizona Coyotes, an NHL Team
11. Public-private partnerships and cross-industry collaboration as critical to reaching climate goals
The transitioning to green requires significant financing. Government funding has been slow to materialize, and it will not be enough to meet the challenge, making private capital essential. As banks pivot to green financing, companies across sectors need to ask how they can leverage this capital.
Technological innovation will also be necessary. Public-private collaboration is needed to develop clean technologies quickly and at scale. Government funding and policy incentives can support R&D in clean technology. And the private sector is where these innovations for sustainability will occur.
Business will be vital in ensuring the commitments governments made at COP26 translate into tangible action. All companies have a role to play, no matter where they currently are on transitioning to green. Companies across sectors need to continue to activate capital, technology and reporting to help the world achieve its climate goals. In doing so, they will also position themselves for (green) growth.
—Orlan Boston, Americas ESG Markets Leader, Ernst & Young LLP
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of Ernst & Young LLP or other members of the global EY organization.
12. Truly purpose-driven leaders will tackle trade-offs
The last several years should have been a wakeup call for many CEOs who realize the need to take a public position on social and civic issues—from equality to climate change—and that words are empty without action. At the same time, the pressure to perform is not going away and will continue to intensify.
Firm performance will be redefined to encompass not only shareholder return but the company’s impact on employees, customers, community, and the planet.
As leaders actually begin to put this into practice, however, their ability to tradeoff performance on one dimension for another dimension will be limited. Leaders will have to learn to make hard tradeoffs and become more transparent about them. Hiding behind the idea of “purpose” or behind dressed-up ESG scores is no longer an option. The veil will be lifted. Organizations that don’t get serious about putting their money where their mouth is, run the risk of public fallout and ultimately, failure.
—Ranjay Gulati, Paul R. Lawrence MBA Class of 1942 Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and author of Deep Purpose: The Heart and Soul of High Performance Companies, forthcoming from Harper Business in February 2022
13. Coalitions shift demand and accelerate innovation to address the climate crisis
Business is increasingly playing a proactive role in accelerating action on climate change. Public-private ventures are not new, but initiatives such as the First Movers Coalition, the Sustainable Aviation Buyers Alliance Aviators Group, the Clean Energy Demand Initiative, and the Lowering Emissions by Accelerating Forest finance (LEAF) Coalition demonstrate that strong demand signals can shift industry faster than previously thought.
Leveraging the collective purchasing power of the private sector, we can advance decarbonization at a large scale and send an important signal that demand will rapidly grow for products and services that help reduce carbon emissions. It is up to all of us to stay optimistic and keep pushing forward to deliver on the promise of a cleaner, healthier future for people and the planet. We will not succeed in addressing climate change unless we approach this collaboratively.
—Kara Hurst, Vice President of Worldwide Sustainability, Amazon
14. Companies identify and support their corporate social intrapreneurs
In the midst of the pandemic, business has learned it can innovate faster than ever imagined. Companies have restructured their workforces overnight and have re-tooled production lines to provide desperately needed PPE and sanitizing products. In record time, they also played a critical role in developing vaccines that are now saving lives. The path forward in 2022 will harness this innovative energy to make deeper, long-lasting change in the way businesses operate to serve all of their stakeholders.
How? Identify the corporate social intrapreneurs waiting in the wings to help drive the changes that are needed. These innovators, who may work in any department, have compelling ideas about how to develop new products, services and practices that deliver value for the business and for society. They are ready to roll up their sleeves. It’s time for companies to create the pathways for these employees to serve as catalysts—to turn corporate purpose and commitments into practice.
—Nancy McGaw, Senior Advisor, Aspen Institute Business & Society Program
15. Resolve of business leaders to defend our democracy to be tested
For many Americans, 2022 will be no less challenging than 2021. About a third of the country—and mostly people of color—will continue to struggle to make ends meet, missing out on fair opportunities to participate, prosper, and reach their full potential. Yet, the momentum on racial and economic equity will continue with the growth of cross-sector alliances. Long overdue, worker power and voice will increase as well.
While the media attention to fear-based, zero-sum narratives about racial equity will continue (and heighten due to the midterm elections), more investors and business leaders will see through it, choosing instead to join grassroots and civil society organizations in advancing equity. The key question is whether business leaders will go far enough to defend voting rights and our multiracial democracy. The future calls for leaders who understand equity is not about left or right; who know not everyone will come along at first, but that the work ultimately brings everyone along.
—Mahlet Getachew, Managing Director, Corporate Racial Equity, PolicyLink
16. Great places to work will act on pandemic-gained wisdom about how we work
The pandemic revealed our fundamental confusion about how to create norms of work that we can live with. From where I sit, I see unsustainable patterns of hyper-productivity, especially in the knowledge economy. I’m confident hard-earned pandemic wisdom will lead to more sustainable work practices.
We can each take action to create a better experience of work and working—by making it more meaningful, creating belonging and unleashing potential for ourselves and those around us. I have a hunch that organizations and leaders who put earned wisdom into practice are more likely to be great places to work. Those who talk about it but fall short of taking action will risk falling into the fear-based cycle of hypocrisy—if lip service fails to translate into lived experience.
We are more robust and capable than we tend to think. We have learned how to keep work alive during a pandemic—maybe we can now learn how to make work and workplaces enlivening for the humans.
—Heidi Brooks, Senior Lecturer in Organizational Behavior, Yale School of Management
17. Employers must innovate to assure robust retirement benefits
U.S. retirement benefits are primarily delivered through the workplace. Employers play a significant administrative and legal role running plans. As the workforce changes and retirement benefits are delivered primarily in the form of Defined Contribution (401k) vs. defined benefit plans, employers are reconsidering the role they might play to assure a secure retirement for their employees. Solving the retirement challenges for the American worker requires innovative solutions, as plans evolve to provide income, not just accumulate savings for retirees.
Many employers are stepping up the plate to embrace this challenge and realize the benefits of a having a workforce that is retirement ready. For others, it’s less of a priority; they don’t have the time, expertise, or resources to take on this burden. We need a system that can accommodate both, as retirement security is an imperative for our nation’s health. The companies that embrace innovation will be part of the solution.
—Josh Cohen, Managing Director, Head of Client Solutions, PGIM DC Solutions
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