For the Right Reasons: Trends in Business Ethics

In cinema, every audience member has a line they draw (consciously or subconsciously) between which actions a character can take and remain likeable, and those which they cannot.  Similarly, even characters coded as villains can earn sizable amounts of sympathy with just one or two positive traits or behaviors. 

Think of Darth Vader’s redemptive protection of his son in Return of the Jedi, or Walter White’s transition in Breaking Bad from a morally gray family man into a true criminal.  How do these dynamics relate to business?  They show us that actions reveal our values, and that society cares more about values than any other element of a person or organization.

Modern business research shows that an organization’s ethics, values, and positioning on social and moral issues are more relevant than ever to consumers.  It’s less and less tolerable for businesses to ignore or contradict the right thing in 2021.  Let’s look at what that means with more specificity, starting with a truth that most consumers understand intuitively.

According to the Society for Human Resource Management’s Special Expertise Panels, “Organizations continue to struggle with balancing the competing interest of bottom-line results, legal obligations and employee demands while making ethical decisions in all aspects of the employment life cycle.”

To step back into cinema and borrow a quote from Citizen Kane, “It’s no trick to make a lot of money if all you want is to make a lot of money.”  Profit is not a value, it’s a motive.  And at the expense of all other considerations, it’s not difficult, and it is not impressive to your customers.  It might be actively repugnant, if you’ve neglected enough values on the way to achieving it.

Importantly, it’s not just your customers who won’t adulate you for profits alone—it’s the people you need to employ to create those profits.  SHRM’s Special Expertise Panels expound on this as well: “Individuals will seek employment and align themselves with organizations that view social responsibility and sustainability as core to company culture,” not ones who ignore these ideas.

Moreover, the Panels remind us that “Individuals will continue to volunteer their skills to nonprofit organizations as a way to add a social impact and purpose to their careers.”  Never forget that people have always, and will always, labor for free if they are engaged in useful, positive work.  If your employees’ motivations are not purely profit, how can you expect them to respect you for a profit-only attitude?  And, again, how can you expect your customers—employees in their own right, volunteers in their own right—to respect you for such an attitude?

The solution is to be the opposite of the profit-fixated.  Be the organization that takes a stand, in word and in action.  How?  As OpenStax’s “Trends in Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility” explains, “Today, the focus has shifted to strategic giving, which ties philanthropy and corporate social responsibility efforts closely to a company’s mission or goals and targets donations to the communities where a company does business.”

This is how you can encourage people to patronize your business and feel good about helping you profit: by using some of that profit, noticeably and promptly, to assist the very people who made it possible.  It allows your organization to quantifiably show your dedication to a cause, and do so in the immediate area that the funds initially came from.

Forbes writer Susan Galer articulates this idea as a “voice of society” metric, which will be used for “documenting a company’s contributions to society” and will prove more and more relevant in the rest of 2022 and beyond.  Reflecting the idea of profit being insufficient for approval, Galer goes a bit further by describing it as insufficient for survival: “Turns out what’s damaging to society is damaging to business… organizations have a fiscal and moral responsibility to measure, reduce, or eliminate tone-deaf or insensitive racial and ethical concerns.”

Sustainability is another consideration that is no longer optional for business success.  It’s a necessity.  IDC’s statement that by 2025, 90% of G2000 companies “will mandate reusable materials in IT hardware supply chains, carbon neutrality targets for provider’s facilities, and lower energy use as prerequisites for doing business.”  The key word there, of course, is prerequisite—not preference, not desire, but prerequisite. 

The environment, the dignity of other people, the uplift of the communities in which business is conducted: all of these are sown into the DNA of business success stories.  Shown behaviors that reflect these values, potential buyers will become repeat buyers.  Shown the opposite, loyal customers will turn away from your brand and stride confidently toward the competition. 

The quote from Citizen Kane is vital to understanding that profit alone has long been insufficient.  Recall that the film was released in 1941, and was hardly considered radical at the time.  And indeed, the modern business environment proves that consumers have moved even beyond Welles’s message.

Values are what matter to the common consumer, who will decide if you are able to “make a lot of money”.  Values are what you should concern yourself with when spending your profit.  Without a clear expression of humanitarian, environmental, and other positive values, people will see your organization as an uncaring, ethics-optional body.

Ethics-optional is, simply put, no longer an option.  Prove to your customer that you care, or they will prove that they do not care about you.