For generations, good business has been seen as the very foundation of prosperity, job creation, and delivering products and services that improve all our lives.
But today business is facing some fundamental questions about its role in society.
Is it a solution for or a driver of inequality? Should its voice be heard on the biggest issues this country faces? Should the state take control of large chunks of the economy?
This is why trust in business is so essential in a modern society – and why it is of great concern to find that the reputation of business has taken a 20 per cent dip here in our capital.
The CBI and Porter Novelli have today published our latest polling on business reputation, carried out by Opinium – and there are some clear lessons to be learnt to keep enterprise at the heart of our economy. Ask any chief executive and they’ll tell you that the fastest route to company extinction is a breakdown in trust.
The quest for trust in business can often feel like one step forward, two steps back though.
An individual scandal can put the brakes on the undeniable improvements the wider business community is making, or the simple, unheralded day-to-day activities of firms getting on with the job all over the capital.
The collapse of Carillion, the abuse of personal data by Cambridge Analytica, and the shambles over BHS pensions hurt all firms. And with the Presidents Club debacle at the start of the year, it is sadly is no surprise that 78 per cent of people want firms to do more to value women’s equality.
But despite the fact that only 55 per cent of Londoners believe the reputation of business is good, compared with 75 per cent when we last ran the poll less than a year ago, there are some more encouraging signs.
The building blocks for improvements in the longer term are being put in place, piece by piece.
In the last six months, the public’s perception of business leaders has picked up. Even more telling is the increase in the public’s knowledge about the contribution business makes – up to 54 per cent – while over three quarters of Londoners report a positive relationship with their own employer.
Perhaps the most striking finding is that nine out of 10 people in London want businesses to speak out on the issues that matter to them and impact their lives – issues of national importance, from Brexit and immigration to gender pay gaps and the security of personal data.
There is a strong appetite to hear from businesses to help inform the debates we see in parliament, the media, and across kitchen tables throughout this city.
But what must businesses do better? The evidence is clear that there is a baseline of behaviour that the public rightly expects. That means treating employees well, paying a fair share of tax, and tackling unfair pay – both at the low and high end of the scale.
These are all issues which are firmly on the public’s radar, and are set to remain so. Behaving in a way which is fair and transparent for customers, employees, and communities can only be good for business.
Business leaders and politicians need someone they care about on their shoulder. And for every decision they take, they must be able to look that person in the eye and back their choices with pride. That’s what great leaders do and what great economies are built on.
Only by assessing our weaknesses honestly and building a critical mass of good corporate behaviour can we hope to not find ourselves de-railed by the next big scandal and setting back the reputation of business once again.