When business leaders start talking about the their company’s DNA, they should stop wasting their breath, says Peter Knight

Doing the Right Thing is the sustainability equivalent of the business cliché “going forwards”.

The emptiness of both phrases is exposed when you say their opposite: a business would never contemplate “going backwards” and it’s unlikely you would advocate doing the Wrong Thing, unless you were a conniving cyber criminal planning your next exploitation of the Heartbleed bug.

The words and phrases we use to talk about business are important because they define our attitude to change and our willingness to act. There are three main clichés in common use which reveal the intellectual poverty of the current attitudes to sustainable business: Doing the Right Thing; Embedded in Our DNA; and Giving Back.

Doing The Right Thing is supposed to encourage the listener to believe that there is a deep-seated morality within the business where everyone from the cleaner to the CEO instinctively knows right from wrong, and always does right.

We are expected to believe that the moral code has been magically passed down from generation to generation and is, wait for it, Embedded in the DNA of the company. The two phrases usually travel in tandem and are invariably used by companies that have neither process nor procedure to govern their conduct, let alone guide their employees in decision making.

“Why should we write it down? It’s in our DNA!”

There are two main pointers to the emptiness of this position. The first is about corporate memory and the second is about provincialism.

Most companies suffer from a form of corporate Alzheimer’s brought about by constant re-orgs, re-sizing and rapid CEO turnover. There is seldom any memory left, let alone a functioning DNA. Those who talk about Doing the Right Thing tend to live in a pretend “mom and pop” world where little Larry takes over the family business and inherits the moral compass from the loins of his pop.

Yes, there are a few large family businesses left. But besides some notable exceptions these enterprises are usually driven by the avarice of effete and workshy family shareholders who continue to bluff themselves about the moral superiority of their family DNA. How ethics makes it into the DNA remains a mystery, but the pseudo-science metaphor is particularly popular with business, especially the story tellers in publicly listed companies that have no family connections at all.

Right for whom?

It is the provincialism of the thinking behind Doing The Right Thing that is really worrying. Doing right for whom? In a highly interconnected world where even the smallest companies are by necessity global in outlook, what value systems are we using to judge right from wrong?

The Right Thing for someone in the Hindu Kush is not necessarily right for Joe in the US Bible Belt, or Robert Mugabe in his wasted Zimbabwe. This is not to say that you can’t have a set of values that define how you act as a company. But you do need to define them, write them down and publish them so that others may judge whether you are indeed doing the right or wrong thing by your stated values.

Merely saying that your values are Embedded in Our DNA displays a spectacular lack of rigour. As does the phrase Giving Back, which seems to be enjoying a resurgence in popularity as business continues to struggle with the complexity of the business case for sustainability with its dual emphasis on risk management and opportunity creation.

Giving Back is the short form for philanthropy, the peculiar business exercise of giving away shareholders’ money in the hope of burnishing the company’s image, or funding the pet projects of the chairman’s partner.

Ironically, those who most commonly refer to philanthropy as Giving Back usually hold a libertarian view of business. This is the Milton Friedman idea that business generates wealth for society and that the business of business should be purely about business. Nothing else.

Friedman’s disciples dismiss the business case for sustainability as flim-flam but are generally happy to use the term Giving Back.

If business has not thieved anything to generate wealth, why should it give something back? 

Going forwards, Giving Back should be reserved for the playground when Tessa is admonished by mummy for taking Tommy’s toy.

Peter Knight is chairman of Context.

business ethics  cliches  morality  sustainability labels 

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