A Political Argument for Increased Business Morality
I’ve always been cautious about mixing social morality and business morality. This is in part because I’m cautious about the ways powerful entities like commercially successful enterprises can too-easily force the leaders’ narrow personal values on their employees, community and customers. But this presidential election has me rethinking my caution.
I’ve always admired those who try to navigate these business morality issues by advocating that we define the “impact” of commercial success alongside last quarter’s profits. Many big thinkers and even the U.S. Tax Code have worked to provide investors, founders, and employees the ability to declare success from achieving social and public impact while also making a profit. The core idea of this “triple bottom line” approach to business morality is that a commercial enterprise can manage to create outcomes that include not just profits to shareholders, but also social benefit including employee and stakeholder well-being, and even planetary good.
Business Isn’t Immoral by Nature
The triple bottom line approach has not really caught fire compared to the clearer metric of profit/loss. In part, I suppose, because in a triple bottom line business, success seems harder to measure. Spreadsheet assumptions, after all, have a magical way of presenting ambiguity as clarity and limiting the need to quibble over moral choices.
Like a hammer that can build or destroy based on the intention of its handler, the measure of financial profit/loss is itself, neither positive nor negative. Profit/loss, then, appears to be amoral and largely value-free. “It’s just business.”
How Immorality Too-easily Slips into Measures of Business Success
On the surface, profit/loss success metrics look compelling and straightforward. Investors evaluate a company’s value based on short-term and long-term financial returns, asset value, and other quantifiable metrics that line up neatly in spreadsheets. Ambiguity is limited as much as possible to facilitate decision making. Competition, for customers and employees, acts to justify investments with hard-to-predict returns (e.g., employee flexibility and brand building). But the resulting practices don’t have stand-alone value themselves, except to the extent that they drive revenue or create competitiveness.
Immoral business outcomes only show up when there’s no countervailing force to the darker side of human greed, such as effective government regulation or simple human decency on the part of management. When these counter forces are overcome, the immoral acts instigated in the name of profit/loss range from illegal activities (e.g., Wells Fargo) and ethics lapses for which no one is held accountable (e.g., the 2008 financial meltdown), to monumental heartlessness like poorly executed layoffs and CEO pay scales which grow at exponentially faster rates than worker wages.
The amoral “it’s just business” mindset pervading our business culture makes it hard to see the price we pay for the immorality that sneaks in under profit/loss rationales.
On a personal level, we call the exposed immoralities the ‘outliers’ and justify the mindsets that made them possible by compartmentalizing and depersonalizing business. We (try to) “leave it behind” when we go home to our families and friends, separating our business and personal selves. We talk business on the deck while the kids play downstairs. So it feels easier to forget the larger cost of the lie we tell ourselves: it is okay that business is amoral.
Perhaps a triple bottom line approach would help us arrest the immoral people and practices before they spun out of control; perhaps not. It all depends on the intentions and ego of the people at the top.
Enter Donald Trump
Donald Trump gives us a different view of the price we pay for failing to apply business morality. It’s an ongoing Internet debate as to whether Trump is even all that successful in traditional business terms, but regardless of how we might weigh his financial value, his negative value on the morality scale is hard to ignore. Even many of Trump’s supporters won’t defend his behavior in demeaning almost every segment of society, perpetuating rape culture, lying more than any politician in recent history, or simply being crude.
But now he’s on a bigger stage than “just business”. Trump is on the political stage where we actively include morality instead of compartmentalizing it. Trump’s rise to this stage shows us what “it’s just business” looks like when it’s in front of our kids.
To me, the most chilling aspect of this election is that if Donald Trump is elected President of the United States his picture will be right next to the American flag in every elementary school classroom. If that doesn’t show you the potential cost of an “it’s just business” attitude, I don’t know what does.
I agree that adding some business sense to how we run our government would certainly help us all. However, I think the horror of what the prevailing business culture has produced in making a Donald Trump “successful” enough to run for president should give us all pause. It should encourage us to question the continued wisdom of allowing ourselves to believe that an amoral approach to business morality, politics, or anything else, will make this country greater than it is now.
What About You?
I’m rethinking my own business and considering setting myself up as a B-Corp to live my values more fully through my business. How about you? What lessons are you learning from this political reality show? How will it affect your business morality and the way you do business?
Let’s start this conversation and see where it goes.