Businesses worldwide must speak up when they see something wrong happening, or when flawed policies are implemented by governments and politicians, Professor Geoffrey Jones, the Isidor Straus Professor of Business History, Harvard Business School, said.

He added that a government is at its most vulnerable when it has just come in and it is still possible to influence things in a positive direction at that time rather than after a year or two later when those policies have become set. Urging them to speak up in the current context (the travel bans ordered by President Trump in the US) Professor Jones said, “If someone wants to deport millions of people because of their ethnicity or their race, there is a moment, when business leaders who run brands that we use everyday, have a responsibility to stand up. If that moment passes, then it will become set into practice. We live in a dangerous moment in history.”

Drawing from the lessons of history, Professor Jones pointed out that when Hitler came to power in 1933, businesses said nothing. He said, “One American company left Nazi Germany. The rest (IBM, Ford, GM, et al) said nothing. In other words, there was a total silence of capitalism. And it stayed silent right until World War II.”

Lessons from history

He added, “Looking back at that experience, one has to ask when is silence complicity? Of course, you don’t want businesses to break the law. But I think businesses should have a voice if they see things that are wrong and they should be prepared to speak. That’s one of the most important lessons from that period, because terrible things ended up happening in the war in Europe and businesses ended up totally, totally silent.”

While acknowledging that the decision to speak up does come at a cost, Professor Jones cited the example of Anu Aga, former chairperson of Thermax, who was among the few business people who spoke against the Gujarat riots of 2002 as also of Jamnalal Bajaj who participated in the freedom struggle and went to jail repeatedly.

“In my course on entrepreneurship, he is the only entrepreneur who goes to jail. My students do debate about whether the group could have been bigger, and whether an entrepreneur should only focus on his business. But he was on the right side of history. In the circumstances, he did the right thing. There was no Bajaj in Nazi Germany.”