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Do You Have the Courage to Do the Right Thing?

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Do You Have the Courage to Do the Right Thing?

A few years ago, I attended a two-day conference for business owners discussing the importance of ethics and purpose in business.

Things were going great until someone stood up and asked ‘that’ question. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself.

First came the people.

The conference attendees included colourful celebrities, iconic leaders, inquisitive media commentators and more than a smattering of who’s who in the fair-trade space. An excitable, eclectic and deeply thinking set of people if ever I met. Along with an oversupply of hipster fashionistas, the scent of beard oil permeated the air. The future of business never looked more 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 in a question from the audience to wrap up the theme of this wonderful conference.” As she shielded her eyes from the glare of the lights, she scanned the room for raised hands.

The question that stopped the nation.

Then came this question from the young guy with the tie in the front row. We all instinctively leant forward in our seats expecting to hear words of insight while he quickly stood up and blurted his question to the stage:

“Can someone just tell me what the public’s opinion will be about morality and business in the future, 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, all 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 five distinguished panellists, polarised four major financial supporters, embarrassed the stage host 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 question’s honesty.

When people ask honest questions.

The questioner had missed the entire context of the discussion (or the conference) about doing the right thing because it’s right, and treating any commercial aspects as purely secondary that could look after themselves.

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.

Our businesses all exist within the context of our environment and our customer relationships with our staff, past, present and future. Historically the relationships between business goals and the broader community have always been awkward.

We pass legislation requiring businesses to act ethically and fairly; then we criticise them when they make moral pronouncements about the values of equality. These blunt critiques seem to be the tools of the 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?

Just look at the varied public backlash towards businesses who made a public declaration of their moral or ethical standard on the government’s non-binding, non-compulsory, voluntary postal survey, into the personal lives of a minority group of Australians, where we were all being asked the same question about a civil law: “Should the laws be changed to allow people of the same sex to marry?”

The usual opposing opinions about businesses making moral statements bookended the argument; ‘their statement did not go far enough’ (it never does) on the one hand then swinging to the other side, ‘business shouldn’t express an opinion on moral or societal issues’.

The courage to do the right thing, the right way.

Many societal issues affect the people our business interact with, be they staff, customers or suppliers.

The traditional approach has been one of two opposites:

  • Taking a purely commercial approach to this question, one could follow the words of famed economist (and cited father of capitalism) Milton Friedman and follow his view:

“The business of business is simply to make profits for the shareholders and nothing more.”

Arguing the idea that companies don’t have social responsibilities and their focus should be on maximising profits within the ‘rules of the game’.

  • Taking a morally good centred approach, you could view business as a potential force for good in the community when run by business owners looking to express their ethical and moral standpoint, through their business.

Admittedly this is easier when you’re a privately held business and don’t have to placate shareholders too.

At the moment, most people’s views appear to be somewhere between the two approaches but what is clear now in our digitally connected world is the traditional approach of ‘businesses should be seen and not heard’ (the same approach society took to ignoring its children at the turn of the century) is not going to help solve many of our social issues today that could benefit from a business approach to building 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.

 

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