When should a business express an opinion on a ethical or social issue?
Are morals, ethics and business bad bedfellows?
Your customers may have already thought about this —and expect you have too
A few years ago I attended a two day conference for business owners discussing the importance of valuing ethics and purpose in business ahead of just pure commercial gain.
Things were going great until someone stood up and asked, ‘that question…’
But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself.
In this article
- Beautiful people and big thinkers filled the auditorium
- Then ‘that guy’ asked ‘that’ question
- The question that stopped the nation
- When people ask honest questions
- Context is everything
- Think this doesn't happen much?
- The courage to do the right thing, the right way
- There are many ways to change the world
- Vive la différence
- When people don't need to waste energy self editing who they are they’re more productive
- Businesses make moral decisions all the time
- Ask 'that question'
- The next big business decision
Beautiful people and big thinkers filled the auditorium
The conference attendees included colourful celebrities, iconic leaders, inquisitive media commentators and more than a smattering of who's who in the ethical trade space. An excitable, eclectic and deep thinking group of people as I have ever met. Along with an oversupply of hipster fashionistas, the scent of beard oil permeated the air.
The future of ethical business looked wholesome and welcoming.
Then ‘that guy’ asked ‘that’ question
As the afternoon program came to a close, the stage host announced,
“There's just enough time to get one question from the audience to wrap up the theme of this wonderful conference.”
She shielded her eyes from the glare of the stage lights and scanned the audience for raised hands.
The question that stopped the nation
The young guy with the tie in the front row was chosen to ask the final conference question.
Instinctively we all leant forward in our seats as one, expecting to hear words of insight. He quickly stood to his feet and in a frustrated tone, blurted his question to the stage.
"Can someone just tell me, what the public’s opinion will be in the future about morality and ethics in business, so I can tell my investors how to change their marketing to take advantage of this new trend?"
Perhaps this well intentioned questioner was experiencing an afternoon carbo lag, triggered by a gluten free conference brownie.
Instinctively, the audience recoiled as one back into their seats like a tsunami wave pulling back the ocean leaving the shoreline exposed for all to see.
The question seemed to hang unexamined in the air for a moment; like the surprise arrival of a dog fart in front of the new neighbours, pretending not to notice.
First, the room fell eerily silent.
Only to then seemingly erupt with one roar that crashed over our heads and drenched any chance of a quick answer.
In that one question of pragmatic commercialism, the young guy with the tie immediately insulted 5 distinguished panelists, dismayed 4 major financial supporters, embarrassed the stage host who turned bright red and frankly, it all went downhill from there rather fast.
The wave of the communal response to this now in-fragrant atmosphere was as unexpected, as the brutality of the questioner's honesty.
When people ask honest questions
The questioner had perhaps missed the entire context of the discussion (and the conference) about doing the right thing because it's right; and treating any commercial aspects as purely secondary to the need for honesty.
At moments like this it's hard to know what to think.
It was one of those questions that was immediately due either ‘utter respect for the bravery and clarity it sought,’ or utter ‘contempt for the naivety of the context in which it was asked’.
Context is everything
All businesses exist within the context of their environment and their relationships with customers and staff (past, present and future).
Historically the relationship between business goals and the broader community has always been awkward.
- We pass legislation requiring businesses to act ethically and fairly, then we criticise them when they make moral announcements about the values of equality.
These blunt critiques seem to be the simple tools of trade for many commentators looking for a quick story to inflame the masses, rather than fostering a helpful community discussion about how to do business better.
Think this doesn't happen much?
Just look at the different public criticisms towards businesses (and sporting clubs) who made a public declaration of their ethical stance on the government's non-binding, non-compulsory, voluntary postal survey into the personal lives of a minority group of Australians—where we’re all being asked the same question about a civil law:
‘Should the law be changed to allow same-sex couples to marry?’
The typical polarising opinions about businesses making moral statements bookend the argument.
Either ‘their statement did not go far enough’ (it never does) or swinging to the other side, ‘businesses should never express opinions on moral or social issues’.
The courage to do the right thing, the right way
Many social issues affect businesses and become workplace issues because business is about people.
Be they staff, customers or suppliers, businesses are comprised of people.
The traditional arguments have been one of two opposites.
- Taking a purely commercial approach to this question, one could follow the advice of famed economist (and cited father of capitalism) Milton Friedman and take his view "the business of business is simply to make profits for the shareholders and nothing more,” arguing that “companies don't have social responsibilities and their focus should be on maximising profits within the ‘rules of the game’”.
- Taking a morally centered approach you could view business as a potential ‘force for good’ in the community when run by business owners expressing their ethical standpoint through their business. Admittedly this is easier to do when you’re a privately held company and don't have to placate shareholders.
Today many people's views appear to sit somewhere between these two opposites.
What is clear in today's digitally connected world is the traditional belief that ‘businesses should be seen and not heard’ (the same approach society took to ignoring its children) is not helpful to either side.
Many of today's social issues would clearly benefit from a business approach to building sustainable capacity and doing good.
We are defined by the choices we make and those we choose not to make. Put another way, we are only what we actually do. Drew Browne
There are many ways to change the world
When you realise there are many ways to work to change the world, and all of them may be right, life becomes happier.
Ask yourself these questions and see which ones resonate with you most.
- Do you get a job within a company to improve its culture or work outside and build your own?
- Do you deliberately invest in high polluting companies, so you can become an activist shareholder and have your opinion heard or do you not invest in high polluting companies for the same reason?
- Do you encourage industry self regulation or do you rule by legislation to ‘change the rules of the game’?
- Do your fight the system or do you join it and seek to improve it?
- Do you call for reform in your industry or do you advocate revolution?
There are many ways to make a positive improvement in people's lives and the broader community.
How you choice to do that, will frame your answer to the question: ‘When should a business express an opinion on a social issue?’
Vive la différence
The French indium, ‘long live the difference’ is an expression about appreciating diversity (especially between the sexes).
But apart from distinctively French occasions, like Bastille Day or maybe a visit to the stage play Le Misérables (or watching an Elvis impersonator singing Viva Las Vegas,) you probably won't hear it much; but it's sentiments are at the commercial heart of diversity, inclusion and belonging.
Long live the difference
When people don't need to waste energy self editing who they are they’re more productive
- The commercial case – people who feel free and safe to be themselves, work better, work longer, think better, design and deliver better and have better relationships with your customers and your suppliers.
- The moral case – it's the right thing to do.
Businesses make moral decisions all the time
Slavery and indentured servitude is morally wrong and illegal by at least four major world wide treaties to which Australia is a signatory.
To this effect Australian legislation will shortly be enacted requiring large corporations to make annual public ‘slavery statements’ to document their efforts to identify and remove slavery, debt servitude and human trafficking from their business supply chains.
This is a moral issue with commercial implications and a commercial issue with moral implications.
Ask 'that question'
So let's return to the question of 'When should a business express an opinion about a moral or societal issue?’
- If you a fan of Friedman, where ‘businesses are best seen and not heard’, your answer is probably “Never because companies don't have social responsibilities”.
- If you take the alternate view that businesses and communities have relationships of interdependence, then you’ll probably hold the view that because business sits within a context and a community, they should have a voice.
If you're currently sitting in the middle somewhere, that's going to be an increasingly frustrating space as community sentiment (dare I say trends) change.
The next big business decision
The really hard question perhaps is not about if, but how. There’s actually not one but two questions at play here;
- When should a business express an opinion on a moral or social issue? and
- How can this be done in a way that aligns the objectives of the business with the needs of the community?
The last word
The commercial reality is for those who get it right, therein lies the competitive advantage of lasting relationships it can create, both commercial and societal.
The moral reality is … well I suppose that depends upon how you answer the question; ‘When should a business express an opinion on a moral or social issue?
Vive la différence.
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