18 March 2021|Business Growth, Eco & Ethics, Latest Posts
By Michelle Wright, founder and CEO of Cause4. ‘Don’t be evil’ was part of Google’s corporate code of conduct from 2000. Shared in employee handbooks and used as the Wi-Fi password on the shuttle at its California headquarters, the statement was a corporate motto that raised a few eyebrows with outsiders who were more used to business-focussed mantras. Adapted to ‘do the right thing’ in 2015, when Google was reorganized under new parent company, Alphabet, the motto expressed the brand’s intentions beyond industry leadership, innovation and financial success.
The majority of entrepreneurs also want to shake things up by starting a business venture that supports their objectives and incorporates their philosophies. Many of us are spurred on by wanting to do things differently, by wanting to avoid the mistakes we have witnessed in previous roles and by creating a culture that we admire. But, when things get tough, is the ethical approach practical? What if ‘doing the right thing’ actually means cutting costs or reducing benefits in order to stay afloat?
The current crises have brought a series of ethical dilemmas. The global pandemic has raised questions about how business leaders are acting towards their staff, their shareholders and the world at large. When many start-ups are operating on a shoe string, how will they protect their staff when they return to work? Will they be able to support the flexibility that their colleagues need during the lockdown? How are start-ups taking action against prejudice in meaningful ways rather than jumping on a bandwagon?
Some corporate responses to Covid-19 demonstrated admirable ethical values: Car insurance companies that offered customers refunds and credits; clothing companies that switched production from fashion to PPE, a plethora of understanding bosses who recognised the stresses on working parents and let them choose their hours and forgave interruptions by their children. On the reverse side, stories have come out of many who behaved poorly. One in three furloughed employees were asked to break rules and keep working. Some business landlords refused to close their office buildings, charging rent even though none of their tenants were able to come to work if they followed government guidelines.
Small and large companies have been under scrutiny and those that have ignored how they treat their people and their customers have felt the backlash. Consumer activism has gone mainstream. More than half of Americans have taken action in support of social issues in the past six months, according to a Ruder Finn study, and almost a third of those actions, such as boycotting a product, were directed at brands.
Ethical strategy shouldn’t be a behind-the-scenes activity, or a special project initiated after a company has been accused of ethical wrong-doing. An ethical strategy should be informed by and influence every aspect of an organisation. Too often decisions are made, or issues ignored, by a business leader cut off from the ‘real world’. Without diversity of opinion or lived experience to provide a broader view of the challenges being faced or the opinions of the wider community, strategies are too limited to be effective. The danger for our society is when we put a halt to the progress that was being made to improve vital ‘upgrades’ to things that matter – accessibility, diversity and equality. These fundamentals can get lost as organisations fight to survive financially.
What every organisation needs is a ‘defensible’ policy; a clear view on how to act to avoid backlash, without ignoring vital fundraising or income-generating activity. An ethical strategy is the umbrella for all activity, something that all members of your team can reference in order to maintain an ethical stance on the decisions they make every day. It’s important that there is a structure to any discussion about ethics. Emotions can get fraught when ethics are discussed from a personal perspective rather than an organisational one, and it’s important to remember that the goal is to ascertain an organisational consensus as to what’s appropriate as opposed to being steered too much by the views of individuals.
Any good entrepreneur relies on a plan. Some of us plot out every aspect of our business from defining the market to branding and packaging. Others prefer a flexible approach with one eye on the bottom line, while we explore every new opportunity for growth. Whichever camp you fall into, I’d recommend you take time to document your own ethical view. Consider what your company stands for and how you want to impact those around you. Seeing your ethical strategy written down brings it to life and provides you with the roadmap you need for all the decisions you take going forward – whether they relate to staffing, customer service or partnerships.
We are going to expect a lot from our leaders in the year ahead, and the public won’t accept excuses from companies in defence of a decision or a failure to act. We will want to see our leaders act with integrity, demonstrate openness and honesty in their decisions, putting people first. As an entrepreneur it can feel like the world is on your shoulders at times. Difficult decisions often have to be taken, sometimes without enough time to review all the options. Having an ethical strategy – a blueprint on what you feel is important for your company and your reputation – can help you chose well and justify that all the choices you make are decisions you can be proud of.
About the Author
Michelle Wright is founder and CEO of Cause4. Launched in 2009, Cause4 offers strategic support to charities and not-for-profit organisations. The company has grown rapidly and has worked with some of the country’s leading charitable organisations. Cause4 works in the private sector developing CSR and philanthropy programmes with organisations such as Santander, Close Brothers and Cineworld and supports the development of philanthropic foundations. A Guildhall School of Music & Drama and Ashridge Business School graduate, Michelle worked for four years as a professional violinist before becoming a fundraiser. She started Cause4 with a vision to revolutionise the charitable sector. Cause4 has raised more than £55 million for charitable clients and works with a range of charities, social enterprises and philanthropists and their causes in the UK and internationally. Michelle has won many awards for her work and, in 2020, was a GOLD WINNER at the Women World Awards with Cause4 named Best Non-Profit Response to Helping Local Communities and the World During COVID-19.
Cause4 twitter: @OfficialCause4