April was not kind to woke corporations.
After being assured by consultants at McKinsey of 2 million subscribers in its first year, left-wing news streaming service CNN+ shuttered after only a month, capping out at barely 10,000 daily viewers. Disney’s brand is in free fall after its CEO, Bob Chapek, came out swinging in opposition to legislation that prevents issues about sexual orientation and gender identity to be taught to kindergarteners — a move that prompted the Florida legislature to strip the company of its preferential tax status in the state. And social media giant Twitter was taken over by billionaire Elon Musk in an aggressive buyout prompted by the platform’s reputation for censoring views that run contrary to the liberal orthodoxy of the moment.
American Express CEO Steve Squeri should take note: Going woke has consequences.
Like so many other corporations swept up in the movement to integrate social issues into its business model, AmEx has leaned into employee events pushing principles of critical race theory, which promotes the idea that the United States is an inherently racist country. On Sept. 24, 2020, AmEx hosted activist Khalil Muhammad to lecture on “race in corporate America.” During the event, Muhammad asserted that capitalism was founded on racism. “American Express has to do its own digging about how it sits in relationship to this history of racial capitalism,” he instructed.
It’s apparent that AmEx took that directive to heart, injecting identity-based policies into its employment practices. Internal documents brought to light earlier this year show just how deep these policies reach into the lives of the company's 63,700 employees.
The company’s "Building Allyship" course instructs staff on “microaggressions” and encourages support for Black Lives Matter, a movement that declares it wants to “disrupt” the traditional “nuclear family structure” and stop “heteronormative thinking.”
A 2021 AmEx environmental, social, and governance report promotes the fact that the company “encouraged colleagues in major office locations to self-identify across gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and disability depending on their location.”
Perhaps most damning of all are documents that show AmEx tied 15% of executive bonuses to a “colleague” metric of “diversity,” incentivizing managers to hire and terminate employees based on their race and sex. That one crosses the line between ridiculous and illegal.
Employment decisions based on race and sex are explicitly prohibited in federal law by Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In New York City, where AmEx is headquartered, those prohibitions also apply via New York state civil rights statutes and Title VIII of the New York City Human Rights Law.
This shouldn’t just be cause for concern for AmEx employees but for shareholders as well. Civil rights litigation could prove costly for the financial services corporation, with consequences both financial and reputational. Beyond being bad for business, the human capital policies embraced by AmEx are inherently antithetical to our country’s values. The more the company embraces social issues, the more its brand is in danger of being seen as “un-American” Express.
Thankfully, it’s not too late to course-correct.
On May 3, AmEx will convene its annual shareholder meeting. There, Squeri has the opportunity to assuage stockholder and employee concerns by opening the books on all of AmEx’s internal policies and ESG materials. If the company takes pride in its inclusion and diversity initiatives, there should be nothing to hide.
Second, Squeri should announce the retention of an independent third party to audit AmEx's hiring, termination, promotion, and bonus practices to ensure all are aboveboard and in compliance with municipal, state, and federal law.
Finally, AmEx should guarantee that any employees who step forward with concerns about the company culture are able to do so without fear of retribution. Whistleblowers deserve to be heard, and they can help generate an honest assessment of the impact of ESG policies on employees of all cultural perspectives and backgrounds.
Old Twitter, Disney, and CNN+ present a cautionary tale for Squeri and other executives: Pushing a radical social agenda alienates customers, employees, and shareholders. If you’re so hell-bent on making enemies, just quit your job and become a politician.
Gregory T. Angelo is the president of the New Tolerance Campaign. Visit newtolerance.org for more information.