Business ethics: do the right thing

CORPORATE PHILOSOPHER IN RESIDENCE

In my work as a professional “Corporate Philosopher” I work with a number of global banks and other corporations, the public sector and government agencies in helping leaders and employees ask and answer the question, “Are we doing the right thing?”

The challenges we face today are immense. We are all concerned about the banking system and the economy, but many of us are also concerned about social cohesion, environmental breakdown and why we never seem to have enough money or possessions.

The research into the economics of happiness finds that our levels of well-being in the West are no higher than they were 2 generations ago, in the 1950s. Yet our economies are up to 16 times bigger than they were then (3 per cent GDP growth doubles the economy every 20 years). So we are consuming up to 16 times the economic resources our grandparents were consuming, with very little to show for it other than overdrafts, mortgages, failed relationships and the latest shiny gadget in our pocket.

So what has this got to do with business? Well the simple answer is that we cannot separate business from society. Business is not some cool console game that we play at work. Everything we do at work affects other people and the world we inhabit. But our financial and economic system doesn’t value or measure many positive outcomes like personal well-being; and we don’t measure many negatives like the social impact of unemployment or the environmental damage caused by species extinctions.

The other challenge with business is that the modern corporation is a fairly dysfunctional form of human association. In the UK we live in a free-market, social democracy. But the modern corporation is a totalitarian, feudal plutocracy. That is why the average quoted business survives for less than 30 years.

Businesses thrive and sustain themselves by achieving economic purpose, but they can only do this in a sustained way by creating a human community of belonging, where people care about the consequences of what they do for everyone who is affected. Doing the right thing in business is no different from doing the right thing in life. It’s not complex. It’s simple. But it’s also very hard.

Roger Steare is Professor of Organisational Ethics at Cass Business School. Try his free online Moral DNA Profile and buy his book at

www.ethicability.org