Disney’s CEO Gets Why Employees Want Their Bosses to Be More Political

People expect companies to step up because other institutions are failing them, Bob Iger said at The Atlantic Festival.

Disney Chairman and CEO Bob Iger talks with Laurene Powell Jobs onstage at The Atlantic Festival.
Kristoffer Tripplaar

Bob Iger, the chairman and CEO of the Walt Disney Company, says that the country’s most influential businesses have a duty to effect social change and fill in the gaps of public policy. “I do think companies, particularly large companies, have an obligation to try to solve some of these problems on behalf of their employees and come up with solutions,” Iger said today in conversation with Laurene Powell Jobs at The Atlantic Festival in Washington, D.C. (Powell Jobs is the founder of the Emerson Collective, which is the majority owner of The Atlantic.)

Iger, who has considered running for president, said that as his employees’ trust in government wanes, they’ve turned to Disney to take action on social and political issues. “Because they feel that they’ve been failed by other entities, they’re expecting their company to step up,” he said. “Maybe rightfully so.”

Disney isn’t the only company to face this kind of pressure from its employees. As my colleague Ellen Cushing has written, workers at Microsoft, Salesforce, Google, and Amazon have all pressured their employers—in the past year alone—to reconsider government contracts that employees view as unethical.

Last year, Disney committed to paying for its U.S. hourly employees’ education, a benefit Iger said almost 9,000 workers had already cashed in on. “I don’t know of anything we’ve done that has resonated more than this,” he said. Also in 2018, Disney struck a deal with unions representing workers at its parks in Orlando, Florida, and Anaheim, California, to raise their minimum wage to $15 an hour by 2021, though its merger with 21st Century Fox earlier this year is expected to result in thousands of layoffs. Iger, meanwhile, was the third-best-paid CEO of a public company in 2018, making more than Apple’s Tim Cook and SoftBank’s Nikesh Arora.

Iger has spoken before about his enthusiasm for corporate social responsibility, and in a 2018 interview with the Center on Foreign Relations, he related it to the movies and TV shows the company produces. “Our brand stands for fairness and justice and inclusion, all people being treated equally,” he said at the time. (In that same interview, he described his willingness to meet with the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Salman, and also criticized the movie business for going “a little too far in infusing its stories with political themes that best reflect the positions of those in Hollywood.”)

Onstage at The Atlantic Festival, Iger declared that “the brand promise of Disney is that we are going to be a good citizen of the world.” That, he said, includes maintaining a small environmental footprint, treating employees well, and producing high-quality, well-priced products for its customers. Focusing exclusively on profits and shareholders, he said, is not an option. “The dynamic today in our country does not allow for companies to do that,” he said.