Why is good behaviour in business such a radical idea?

Gordon Black
Over And Under
Considering employee wellbeing comes down to one simple rule (Source: Getty)

One of the most significant passages of Theresa May’s wide-ranging speech at the Conservative Party conference earlier this month criticised selfish bosses, rigged markets and dysfunctional businesses.

Calling for a new spirit of citizenship, the Prime Minister highlighted a rogues’ gallery of those companies who refused to play by the rules, infuriated their customers and alienated staff.

This was a timely reminder that businesses, both large and small, should not be driven by greed, self-interest and exploitation, but loyalty, co-operation and integrity. These latter qualities have been sadly lacking in too many high-profile companies recently. I’m not going to name names, but I suspect we all know who I’m talking about. They have broken the social (and moral) contract that allows capitalism to function.

A successful business should be underpinned by enlightened self-interest. I cannot abide flash in the pan, egotistical bosses, who feather their own nests at the expense of their employees. The so-called gig economy has hastened this trend, with zero-hour contracts, impossible targets and distant, demanding management. We need to return to core business values that stress the team not the individual; steady and solid growth; and giving something back to the community.

This isn’t an impossible dream. John Lewis and Marks and Spencer are but two high-profile companies in the UK today who have made a virtue of looking after their staff, developing a culture of teamwork and inclusivity.

I remember my father telling me that he hated being employed at the start of his career; so much so that he vowed, if he ever became the boss, to create a happy and enlightened working environment. As the first chairman of the Yorkshire-based Peter Black Holdings, he was the master of the small gesture, which demonstrated that he had a genuine concern for the welfare of his employees.

In today’s frantic, pressurised environment, when people change jobs with far more regularity than ever before, the physical and mental welfare of employees is often overlooked.

How short-sighted this is. An unhappy or stressed staff member is likely to be operating at no more than 50 per cent of his or her capacity, which inevitably has negative repercussions on staff morale and company output. A wise employer will keep an eagle eye on the wellbeing of staff. A foolish employer will ignore it, thus exacerbating the problem. The debilitating impact of high staff turnover must not be under-estimated.

As chairman of Peter Black Holdings from 1977 until 2007, I worked with some good businesses. But I worked with a few bad ones too. We were a major supplier of footwear, toiletries, cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and logistics to the UK’s leading retailers, with annual sales of £300m and more than 3,000 staff, and experienced many kinds of poor business practice.

When it comes down to it, all I can say is that the old dictum “do as you would be done by” is as applicable to business as it is to one’s personal life. And it is worth adding the salutary warning that poor business practices nearly always catch up with the perpetrators in the end.

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