When Should a Business Have or Express an Opinion on a Moral or Social Issue?


When Should a Business Have or Express an Opinion on a Moral or Social Issue?

In my previous article, Asking those morally challenging questions, brave or naïve? I discussed my experience at a conference discussing the importance of ethics and purpose in business.  

The fallout that came from an attendee asking a question that caused a wave of communal response to the in-fragrant atmosphere was as unexpected as the brutality of the questions honesty. The traditional approach to business incorporates either taking a commercial or moral approach to business, and most people’s views appear to be somewhere between the two. But in today’s digitally connected world many of our social issues could benefit from a business approach to building capacity and doing good.

There are many ways to work to improve the world one community at a time.

When you realise there are many ways to change the world and all of them may be right, life becomes happier. It takes a village to grow a child; it probably takes a community to change the world for better.

Which approach resonates with you?

  • Do you get a job within a company to improve its culture or work outside and build your own?
  • Do you purposefully 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 and ‘change the rules of the game’?
  • Do you 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 do that, will inform your answer to the question: “When should a business have or express an opinion on a social issue?”

Vive la difference.

The French idiom, ‘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 trip to the stage play Les Miserables or watching an Elvis impersonator singing Viva Las Vegas,) you probably won’t hear it much; but its sentiments are at the commercial heart of diversity and inclusion.

Long live the difference.

When people don’t need to waste energy self-editing who they are they’re more productive:

  • The commercial reality; 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.
  • And the moral case; it’s the right thing to do.

Businesses make moral decisions, all the time.

Slavery and indentured servitude are morally wrong and illegal by four major worldwide treaties to which Australia is a signatory.

To this effect, Australian legislation will shortly be passed requiring large corporations to make annual public ‘slavery statements’ and document their efforts showing the efforts they have made to identify and remove slavery, debt servitude and human trafficking from their business supply chains.

Surely this is a moral issue with commercial implications and a commercial issue with moral implications. So, let’s return to the question of “When should a business express an opinion about a moral or societal issue?’

If you are 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 other view that businesses and communities have relationships of interdependence, then you’ll probably hold the view that business sits within a context and a community, and so should have a voice.

If you’re in the middle somewhere, that’s going to be an increasingly frustrating space as community sentiment (dare I say trends) change.

The really hard question perhaps is not about if, but how?

There’s actually not one but two questions at play here:

  1. When should a business express an opinion on a moral or social issue?
  2. How can this be done in a way that aligns the objectives of the business with the needs of the community?

The commercial reality is for those who get it right, lies the competitive advantage and lasting relationships it can create, both commercially and society.

The moral reality is … well, I suppose that depends on how you answer the question, “When should a business express an opinion on a moral or social issue?”

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