Sunday, 16 October 2011

Footnotes to The Bizzle's "The only way is ethics"

In a wittily titled recent post "The only way is ethics?", The Bizzle raised a whole series of issues about what companies say about ethical behaviour. I agree with his post and the conclusion "either walk your talk, or stop going on about it" is unarguable. But it seems to me there are several different strands wound together under this topic of "corporate ethics". I'd like to try to separate those strands. 

The debate in the room at the Corporate Counsel Forum focused on the "compliance" side of ethical behaviour and on creating a culture in a company to meet the challenge of legislation like the UK's new Bribery Act. That was the subject of my own post "Ethics and the General Counsel". As he said in his post, The Bizzle didn't set out to discuss this topic (but he has promised to at a later date).


We might call the next strand "ethics as a fig-leaf for the profit motive". Companies often talk about how ethical they are because they're embarrassed to say clearly that their primary, fundamental role is to be successful and generate profits. If they cannot be financially successful, they can't employ staff, they cannot spend money, they cannot fulfil their role in our economies. If they cannot achieve high performance, there's no point debating what more they might be responsible to do. I'm a meat-eating capitalist, so I don't have any problem being clear about this. But a lot of what gets branded "corporate ethics" looks to me like people trying to hide or soften this stark but important truth. 


It's sometimes difficult to separate the previous strand from the next one, which is when companies try to persuade us they are "good" in some unspecified way. Some of the thinking in this space is so confused and nebulous, it barely merits a response. I really don't know how to respond to "don't be evil" other than to remind people that the world really isn't a Manichean struggle. Even if it were, a
ny large company is, necessarily, made up of a lot of people and a great deal of dispersed activities. I don't see how this kind of terminology can even be meaningful. 

After this, we come to "Corporate Social Responsibility". In the past, some companies' communications about CSR have been muddled up with the "fig-leaf" and "goodness" strands I describe above. I have no time for that. But I do think CSR is a real and important part of what a high performance company should set out to do. This point is worth elaborating a little.


As individuals, we don't expect merely to go to work, comply with the law, pay our taxes
 and ask the state provide everything else. We form groups and take responsibility for all sorts of things in our communities. Now I don't want to come over all Big Society, but lots of people, whatever their politics, are engaged in activities they feel strongly about. They care and they're well placed to make a difference. They don't wait to be told what to do.

In the corporate context, it's probably best I illustrate with a real example. Recently, I went with four colleagues to visit a further education college which is five minutes walk from our office. We're in the process of establishing what we hope will be a lasting relationship. That college has 100 students studying IT. My employer is a large, British headquartered, multi-national IT company. Many of my colleagues think we might be able to help those students raise their horizons. The development staff at the college agree. We seem to be very well placed to make a difference in a targeted way. So we have a choice. We could obey the law, pay our taxes and hope someone else sorts it out. Or we can get involved. I know which makes sense to me. 
 

Finally, The Bizzle rightly highlights the type of self-serving nonsense you see from many procurement departments, who proclaim they are "partnering" ethically with suppliers before nailing them to the wall. There's a lot of writing on the symbiotic relationship companies have with their supply chains. That's one for another post.

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