Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Business & Morality

I've been involved in a number of projects recently touching on the subject of sustainable business. At the core of the sustainable business debate is the issue of morality - though most debates rarely go there (not least because we tend to see morality as a matter of religious belief and therefore outside the bounds of normal business discourse).

I think this is a pity - but I also think it is changing. Many people do draw on their faith to inform their decisions about what is moral or not. But many don't, and in the world of business most moral dilemmas do not lend themselves to the more personal nuances of religious morality. Still, many business decisions have moral dimensions - and consequences. And, as often in the past, it is the mis-behaviour of certain firms or sectors (think sub-prime lending) that raises questions about the morality of business.

The behaviour of businesses is fundamental to our future: not least because a lot of folk think that businesses - and by extension, business people - are fundamentally immoral. Business is often seen as morally irresponsible in relation to the environment, developing countries, employees, customers etc. But not all businesses: think of Google's admonition to Don't Be Evil.

New insights from neuroscience are starting to provide us with a more useful understanding of secular morality. My guess is that we will hear a great deal more about morality and business in the months and years ahead - as we should. I keep saying to my clients: a company is a legal construct, it's the people in it that determine whether the business is behaving morally or not.

And here's a re-assuring example of a financial institution (no less) that has addressed the issue of morality and business responsibility head on. The company is Liberty Mutual who have launched the Responsibility Project. Here's just one example: magnificent stuff.


  1. Gerard. Great article and right to the point. I agree with you. Organizations such as XXX, have negative results because the people on board cannot tell the difference between right and wrong. Due to scope, these consequences usually take longer to materialize, but is the result the same? You can find a ton of articles and books about business ethics about businesses “losing their way,” e.g., WorldCom, Tyco, Enron. You can also sign up for seminars where they preach to “do the right thing.” They paint the world in stark black and white. These resources ask one-dimensional ethical questions, such as, “Should you take kickbacks from suppliers?” For me, ethics in the workplace is varying shades of gray. You have to rely on moral law, that is, does it ‘feel’ wrong? It’s easy to say, “There is right, and there is wrong.” In my management book, Wingtips with Spurs, I address these issue in detail. All major corporations have their written code of conduct. Each one is pretty much just a copy of the others and is a major dust bunny. The next time you walk into someone’s office, ask to see the company code of conduct. Good luck on finding someone who will produce it within five minutes. The moral law is much easier to find and digest. It resides in each of us. Michael L. Gooch, SPHR www.michaellgooch.com

  2. In an age of multinational corporations with larger revenues than most nation-states, with their tremedous influence on elections and affairs of state, business leaders are more and more providing the actual leadership of the world.

    Unless more business leaders start to understand their moral responsibilities, we're in for one rough ride...


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