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When should a business express a moral opinion?

A few years ago, I attended a 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.

Read in this article

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’re 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:

  1. 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’.
  2. 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; a stance currently being championed by the International B Corp. movement.

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.  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

The fallout that came from the conference 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?

Vive La Différence

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 reality; 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.

Greater supply chain transparency

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 are 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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