For many Americans (and a growing number of Canadians) Friday, November 29th is Black Friday, a day of rock-bottom prices and a chance to buy, buy, buy. But for others, it instead marks a day that has come to be known as Buy Nothing Day, which is supposedly a day to fight against rampant consumerism by, well, buying nothing. The theory is apparently that if you don’t spend money, you’re taking a stand against over-consumption.
There are several problems with the idea of Buy Nothing Day.
First, as many have recognized, is that anything you don’t buy today you’re just going to end up buying tomorrow. That stereo you resist buying isn’t going to be consumption forgone, just consumption delayed. But the problem is more severe than that, because it is literally impossible to buy less. Every dollar you earn is going to be spent on something, eventually, either by you or by someone else. You can give it away (to someone who will spend it) or you can leave it in your will (to someone who will spend it). The only way to change that is literally to burn your money in the backyard.
The other problem lies in the basic economic fact that a dollar spent by one person is a dollar earned by another. So the dollars you don’t spend today are dollars not going into someone else’s pocket. And in some cases, those are pockets that could really use the dollars.
Yes, I know, it’s about symbolism. Every time I complain about Buy Nothing Day, I’m told I’m missing the point. And that might be true. It is of course no accident that Buy Nothing Day falls on the same day as Black Friday. And even a big fan of commerce has to admit that a shopping frenzy during which elbows are thrown and store employees get trampled is less than a swell thing.
I would simply respond that if you want to do something symbolic, why not do something smarter?
So here’s an idea. If you take seriously the idea that while trade is good, rampant, brainless consumerism is bad, why not commit today to buying a few things you want or need, but give some thought to the other end of the transaction. In particular, buy something from someone who needs it. That might be someone in your own community, or it might be someone (likely someone much worse off) in a far-away land (like Bangladesh).
So instead of buy nothing, how about buying better. Go ahead and buy, if you want, but do your best to buy for impact.
The twittershpere exploded last week over a report that Walmart was holding a charity food drive to help employees feed their families. Comments ranged from incredulous to outraged. The standard narrative went like this: this just proves that Walmart knows it doesn’t pay enough. They’re appealing to the public to feed their employees.
Even CNN, when they picked up the story, described it this way: “One Wal-Mart store in Ohio is collecting canned food to help its workers feed their families a Thanksgiving dinner.”
The problem with this narrative was that it was mistaken, both factually and morally.
First, it wasn’t a matter of Walmart appealing to the public (or anyone else) to help feed employees. It was employees helping employees. Anyone bothering to read the story (as originally reported in the Cleveland Plain Dealer) would have found that “The food drive tables are tucked away in an employees-only area.”
Second, the food drive wasn’t for the benefit of your average, low-wage-earning Walmart employee. It was for the benefit of employees who were in exceptional need. A Walmart spokesperson was quoted as saying that the charity food drive “…is for associates who have had some hardships come up…Maybe their spouse lost a job.” In fact, the Plain Dealer has since published a follow-up story, which noted that employees at the store in question say they feel hurt by the way their food drive was reported. It clearly stings to have the world hurl shame upon you for trying to help a friend in need.
And note that low wages here are really a red herring. When it comes to workers helping fellow workers in exceptional need, wages aren’t really the issue. If your spouse loses their job, it doesn’t much matter whether you’re making $8 an hour or $12 an hour — you’re going to need short-term help.
Naturally, this won’t satisfy critics. “Still,” they’ll say, Walmart employees are badly paid. And this story is a reminder of that.” And it’s true: wages at Walmart are pretty low. And Walmart is a profitable company. So it could decide simply to give employees more money. Of course, in a market setting, giving people money you don’t owe them as a matter of contract is called “charity.” Now, charity is at least sometimes ethically obligatory. And given the disparity in wealth between Walmart employees (many of whom live below the poverty line) and the Walton family (who control the company, and who are the richest family on earth), this might be a situation where giving beyond what you’re legally required to give might be the right thing to do.
But consider this. The US unemployment rate hovering around 7.5%. That means millions of people unemployed. So ask yourself this question: if Walmart (or the Walton family) decided that it wanted to give, say, an extra hundred million dollars to help alleviate poverty, would it be better, ethically, to use that money to give 2.2 million employees a raise (roughly $50 per year, each) or to give a few thousand additional workers minimum-wage jobs, instead?
Life in Rob Ford’s Toronto is at once the best of times and the worst of times, for those of us with an interest in leadership. It is the worst of times because those of us with an interest in leadership enjoy seeing it done well. But it is also — in an admittedly self-serving sense — the ‘best’ of times, because Ford’s abysmal leadership serves as an object lesson in how not to lead, and reminds everyone of just how important leadership really is.
What does an organization — whether it is a city or a corporation — need from a leader? What does Ford have or lack that a business should want in a CEO?
First, you want a leader with vision. Even his detractors have to admit that Ford definitely has that. And it’s what got him elected. Plenty of smart people voted for him because they liked the policy direction he promised to take — or, at least, they liked it better than the alternatives they had been offered. A leader has to have a sense of where he or she wants to lead you. Why would anyone follow someone who isn’t going anywhere you want to go?
Second, though, you want a leader with the organizational skills and the people skills to implement that vision. A leader, in other words, needs more than ideas. Ideas are cheap; the talents required to implement them aren’t. Key among those talents, when it comes to implementing ideas in any reasonably complex organizational setting, is an aptitude for working with people. A leader needs to get along with others. You don’t need to be a devoté of ‘servant leadership’ or an adherent to the notion of ‘leading from behind’ to recognize that leadership typically requires a sensitive appreciation of the talents, motives and desires of a team of people. And it requires a willingness to put in the effort required to find ways to turn varied and often divergent interests into a shared vision. To say that Rob Ford lacks capacity in this regard is to understate the problem.
But vision and people skills are, in a sense, table stakes: you need those things just to get the boat headed in the right direction and to keep it more-or-less on course. But what about when waters are rough? Anyone can captain a boat on calm waters, but the waters of the corporate and political worlds are rarely calm. So the third thing you want is someone with the capacity to keep things cool and keep the mood constructive when times get tough. You need, in other words, someone who is good in a crisis because crisis is almost inevitable. And even those who were entranced by Rob Ford’s promise to “stop the gravy train” have to admit that their mayor is not — most emphatically not — a man who shows grace under pressure.
Toronto is going through a rough time. The city will surely emerge from it. We’ll elect a new mayor and before long Rob Ford will be relegated to YouTube clips of monologues by Jon Stewart and Jimmy Fallon. The risk in all this is that we will fail to learn anything from it. In particular, there has been too much focus on the man himself. And to be sure, there is plenty to criticize there. As the National Post’s Andrew Coyne recently put it, Ford is a man of “limitless ego and unformed character.” We need to get beyond the individual. Every thinking person watching the fiasco that is currently Toronto’s City Hall needs to be asking not just “when will it end?” but also “what can we learn from it?”
Yesterday was Remembrance Day here in Canada (and Veterans Day in the U.S.) Not only did millions of people take a moment to thank veterans and to honour those who served and those who died in combat, so did quite a few companies. This has always been the case. Storefronts have long featured signs, around this time of year, that said “Thank you to our veterans” or “lest we forget.”
But now we have Twitter and other social media. Now the expression of such sentiments can be even cheaper (in both senses of the word). And the nature of social media is such when a company’s gesture is taken as crossing the line into crass exploitation, it can readily go viral. Some have even suggested that it is disrespectful for companies to Tweet about Remembrance Day at all. After all, companies generally communicate for just one reason, and that’s to build sales.
(I wrote two years ago about the similar problem with businesses memorializing 9/11.)
It’s a fine line, ethically. Because there is little that is nobler than wanting to say ‘thank you’ to those who served and sometimes died so that we can enjoy the freedoms we enjoy. But there is little that is more ugly than using a solemn occasion to one’s own narrow economic advantage.
Ethics is partly about outcomes — we want people to do things that will do more good than harm, and that will be respectful of other people’s rights. But ethics is also about intentions. If the intention behind a Remembrance Day tweet is noble — if the social media staffer who posted the tweet really does just want to express heart-felt thanks — then the tweet is arguably a good thing. But if the tweet emanates from the Marketing department, in a cynical attempt to boost sales by pulling heart-strings, that’s a different matter altogether.
And guess what? Intentions are terribly hard to judge from the outside. That’s at least as true for corporations as it is for individual humans. What did the Hudson’s Bay Company intend in tweeting its thanks to Canada’s armed forces? Is there even an answer to that question, let alone one we could divine from the outside?
So the safe advice, from a PR point of view, might be to avoid the Remembrance Day or Veterans Day tweets altogether. Even if your intentions are pure, avoiding the tweets means you avoid the possibility of being misunderstood. But from an ethical point of view, there may be times when a company with the right intentions should craft its message carefully (to minimize the risk of the sentiment being misunderstanding) and send it anyway.
What are an employee’s responsibilities when the boss is out of control — when he or she is self-destructive, doing damage to the organization, or both? It’s one of the hardest problems of workplace ethics.
A case in point is the staff at Toronto’s City Hall, who have and continue to labour under Mayor Rob Ford, a mayor whose strange and erratic behaviour must make continuing the city’s work all but impossible. And bad news continues to pile up for Ford. This past week Toronto Police revealed that they were in possession of a certain video, one that apparently shows the mayor smoking crack, a video the existence of which the mayor had previously denied. And then details surfaced regarding Ford’s behaviour on St Patrick’s day of last year, when he showed up ‘very intoxicated,’ both at City Hall and in public.
Ford has been, in effect, a train wreck. But not exactly merely a private train wreck. He’s been a train wreck in public, and at the office. This raises an interesting question for the people who have worked with him. What are your responsibilities when the boss is a mess? Should you cover up and enable? Should you confront? Should you keep your head down? Staff at City Hall may be facing a particularly public form of this question, but it’s a problem faced in many workplaces.
Junior employees typically have the most to lose, so let’s deal with them first. The first thing that needs to be said is that junior employees aren’t always obligated to speak up, especially when speaking up puts them in personal or professional peril. For all our talk about ‘speaking truth to power,’ there’s a limit to how much we can ask people to sacrifice. It can be OK to keep your head down. This is a question of ethics, but ethics isn’t about always doing the maximum; it’s about deciding the right course of action, based on a range of relevant considerations. And keeping your job is one of those.
The corollary to the permission to keep your head down, though, is an obligation to learn from the situation, to figure out how you might help to avoid such situations in the future, and to resolve never to put junior employees in such a bind when you yourself are at the top of the ladder.
Of course, if your boss’s antics are putting lives at risk, that’s an ethical consideration that should probably outweigh your own concern with staying employed. Valuing your own job above the public safety implies a level of egocentrism that is incompatible with our general social responsibilities.
But an employee’s level of responsibility for the boss varies with power and proximity. A senior advisor with a lot of influence has a responsibility to use it. When you’ve got the boss’s ear, you owe it to him or her to give good guidance, even what it’s advice he or she does not want to hear. But if the boss won’t listen, and if your position gives you the relevant authority, you should take action. Just what action to take will depend on what options are available to you, given your organization’s governance structure.
Most crucial of all is to remember that you owe your primary allegiance not to the boss, but to the organization. With very few exceptions, an employee’s duty is to the mission of the organization as a whole. In normal circumstances, it’s up to the boss to coordinate and motivate employees in pursuit of that mission. But when the boss strays far off mission, or wanders into utter ineffectualness, then there’s justification for deviating from the usual chain of command. Good leaders — ones who are aware of their own foibles and who are focused on the good of the organization — will make it clear to their employees in advance that that’s what they would want them to do, should the need ever arise.
When should a corporation play the role of legal and moral enforcer? And when does a corporation start to take on the obligations — and limits — of a government?
Consider Microsoft’s Windows 8 operating system. When it was released last year, the new OS has met with mixed reviews. But at least one review, by PC World, noticed something interesting about SkyDrive, the new cloud storage service integrated into Windows 8:
“Microsoft restricts the types of files you may upload: Illegally copied commercial content is prohibited, and so are files that contain nudity or excessive violence.”
Just what does that mean? Let’s focus here just on the nudity part.
During an online Q&A session this summer, two Microsoft engineers clarified. Apparently SkyDrive’s rules mean that you are free to store your nudie pics, as long as they don’t include any child pornography. But if you use SkyDrive’s file-sharing feature, the limits are more strict: no nudity at all. So, those topless beach photos from your Mexican vacation are OK to store, but not to share. Is Microsoft checking to make sure stored erotica doesn’t include children? That’s not clear.
This raises interesting problems related to the amount of control that corporations have over everyday activities like storing computer files, especially when — as is the case with many tech companies — their services become part of the infrastructure of our lives, woven into everything we do.
Such power isn’t going to go away. But it does raise questions about the ethical standards that apply to corporate behaviour. If corporations have the kinds of power that were once reserved for states, do they then have the same kinds of obligations? Do the same standards for surveillance and search-and-seizure apply to Microsoft and its users as apply to a government and its citizens?
Of course, if Microsoft users don’t like it, they are in principle free to opt out. There are alternatives to SkyDrive — including Dropbox, Apple’s iCloud, and many others. But Microsoft’s market penetration in terms of operating systems means that for many users (especially ones who aren’t technically sophisticated) SkyDrive is the default. And default options matter; there’s a vast psychological literature on how often people simply go with the default, even when an alternative is available that would advance their interests better.
With great market power comes great responsibility.
Canadian grocery chain Loblaw has announced that it will compensate the families of victims of the factory collapse that happened in Bangladesh’s Rana Plaza this past May. The factory housed a number of garment factories, including some that made garments for the Canadian’ retailer’s “Joe Fresh” line of clothing.
Some will worry that this is a case of too little, too late. And certainly the “too late” part is correct. Compensation is always a distant second best when compared to avoiding deaths in the first place. Whether the compensation is “too little” or not is subject to debate. It’s not clear that Loblaw (or any company) bears direct responsibility for the behaviour of the companies it buys services from, though certainly the case is stronger where the buyer is a highly-capable multi-billion dollar company, and when the companies it buys from are smaller, less-capable companies operating in an under-regulated environment.
Either way, it’s hard not to admire the company for stepping up and assuming responsibility. And the money will surely be a godsend to the families of the victims. But the real benefit of the compensation scheme may well lie in its capacity to reassure Canadians (and other westerners) that the company cares, and that things are going to get better in Bangladesh, so that we can all keep buying goods made there. Because that’s what Bangladesh truly needs.
But on the other hand I continue to worry about Bangladeshi exceptionalism — that is, that all the attention being lavished on the garment industry in Bangladesh will mean little attention gets paid to parallel problems in places like Malaysia, Vietnam, Pakistan, China, and a number of African countries. There are surely factories in many, many developing countries that are ‘Rana Plazas’ just waiting to happen. It’s not clear just what is being done about those.
Finally, many will be asking what still needs to change? Two things come to mind. The first is that companies like Loblaw need to keep getting better at vetting the companies they do business with, in order to weed out the bad ones. This, of course, is much harder than it sounds. The second is that Canadians and other Westerner consumers need to change the way they think about the issue. They need to recognize that Bangladesh is not Canada, and doesn’t have the luxury of North American-style labour standards. They will surely get there, but it will be a long, slow climb.
Most important is that this tragic series of events has focused the world’s attention on an important set of issues. But the challenge lies in harnessing that attention and seeking out reasoned discussion, rather than knee-jerk reactions.
Canada’s government is under fire with regards to gender equity, and business leaders should take notice.
Attention has recently been drawn to a petition calling for women on bank notes. Currently, Canada’s bank notes feature only dead (white) male politicians. Queen Elizabeth is the only woman featured, and she’s not Canadian. The result is that Canadian women, no matter how accomplished or historically significant, are excluded from being celebrated in this high-profile way. The petition notes that Canada’s $50 bill once featured “The Famous 5″ (women instrumental in the fight to acknowledge women’s legal personhood) and Thérèse Casgrain, a Canadian senator who had once been a leader in the women’s suffrage movement in Quebec. But in 2012, those images were replaced with an image of an icebreaker.
Zero representation of Canadian women seems a clear matter of inequity. Of course, it can be pointed out by way of rebuttal that the bills mostly honour dead Prime Ministers, all of whom (the dead ones, that is) happen to be men. But that just means that it’s a case of systemic discrimination, sort of like back when certain police forces required officers to be over 5’10″ or something. They didn’t say that women couldn’t be officers; it just happened (*ahem*) to be the case that very few women qualified.
The other thing that might be pointed out is that it’s not as if anyone is asking for anything onerous or expensive, here, in asking for women to be represented. It’s an easy move with plenty of symbolic significance. It’s the respectful thing to do. Other Commonwealth countries have done it. Why couldn’t Canada?
Of course, it’s easy to pick on individual issues like this, and to see them as representing a general attitude of disrespect. And that’s not always fair. So it makes sense to look more generally at what the Government of Canada has done to show its commitment to gender equality.
Let’s start at the top. How has the Government of Canada done at showing commitment to gender equity by, say, appointing women to Cabinet? Well, there are 12 women in Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s cabinet, out of a total of 39 cabinet ministers. That means Cabinet is 31% women. That’s very roughly proportionate to the number of women in Parliament, since there are currently 76 women sitting in the House of Commons (out of 308 seats, for 25%), and 38 more in the Senate (out of 105, for 36%). But of course it’s nowhere near proportionate to the number of women in the Canadian population, or for that matter on the list of eligible voters. That represents a middling grade at best. This is, after all, 2013.
The Harper government has also been criticized for the under-representation of women on the Supreme Court of Canada. I don’t have a real opinion on this, and I realize that in selecting SCC judges the matter of qualification for the job has to be paramount, far more important in fact than in selection of cabinet ministers. But still, well-informed individuals, including SCC justices, say there’s room for improvement.
Add to this the fact that there have been claims that women’s rights have in fact suffered significant setbacks under Harper’s government.
When you put it that way, the lack of Canadian women on Canadian banknotes looks a little more significant, more like part of a pattern than an aberration.
What’s the take-away for business leaders? If you don’t want to have every decision and policy questioned from an equity point of view, make sure your track record on the issue is one that reassures, rather than provoking cynicism or outright antagonism.
The problem of corruption is a tough nut to crack. The bulk of bribery and other forms of corruption (though by no means all of it) goes on in developing countries where rule of law is lax and the opportunities for profit are rich. Companies succumb to the temptations at their peril. The ROI on bribes is pretty hard to specify, and the jail time that can result ought to be a pretty good deterrent. But evidently that doesn’t make the problem much easier.
Last week, in conjunction with Canadian Business, the Jim Pattison Ethical Leadership Program hosted an executive seminar on the topic, called “The Ethics and Compliance Minefield: New Rules for Doing Business Overseas.” The day’s schedule included terrific speakers from Siemens, the World Bank, and the RCMP. (If you want to find out more, see here.)
A number of themes came to the fore during the day.
First was the role of rationalizations. As I’ve written before, rationalizations play a key role in all sorts of wrongdoing. Good people generally need to give themselves excuses if they’re going to do bad things and still look at themselves in the mirror in the morning. This is nowhere more true than in the realm of corruption. Claims like, “That’s just how business is done over there,” and “No one really gets hurt,” or “We’ve always done it that way” or “That’s the only way we’ll make our sales targets” are often false, and seldom provide cogent support for the moral conclusions they are intended to support.
The second theme that came up repeatedly was the question of control systems. Companies whose employees and agents engage in bribery seem (anecdotally, at least) to have weak internal controls. And that’s not surprising. In order for a few million dollars to go “missing” here and there, and end up in the pockets of local politicians or shady middle-men, you’ve pretty much got to be mislabelling the money at the very least. This sort of thing should be worrisome, and not just from the point of view of ethics and compliance. Sloppy business is sloppy business.
A third theme that arose was the notion that companies who want to avoid corruption face what is really just a special case of a more general set of management challenges. Instituting appropriate financial controls is a general standard management challenge. Ensuring overall organizational integrity (in the broadest sense) is a standard management challenge. And engaging in serious organizational change (such as in the wake of a bribery scandal, for instance) is a standard management challenge. In other words, this stuff is the stuff that good managers, and good leaders, ought to be good at, and if they’re not they need to get good at it or face peril.
The final theme that arose was cooperation. Stamping out corruption requires cooperation at several levels. It requires cooperation among countries, and in particular among their police forces and other enforcement agencies. It also requires cooperation between companies, who have a lot to learn from each other. (What, for example, might smaller companies learn from a been-there-done-that company like Siemens?) It also requires cooperation between different kinds of organizations — for example, between companies and law enforcement agencies.
None of this is easy. But given the potent ethical arguments against corruption, not to mention the potent legal penalties for being caught engaging in it, it’s a problem that needs to be tackled head-on.
It’s a quality control problem at best, and outright fraud at worst.
A recent study by researchers at the University of Guelph used genetic analysis to study a range of commercial herbal remedies and found a shocking disparity between what was on the label and what’s actually in the bottle.
According to the Vancouver Sun, the researchers looked at 44 herbal products sold by 12 companies, using DNA ‘barcode testing’ to determine what plant species were in the bottle.
The result: some products contained other generally inert species of plants (for example wheat, to which some people are allergic, and rice, to which some people are allergic), without those ingredients being listed on the label. Other products were adulterated with potentially toxic plants like St. John’s wort or senna. Others simply contained none of the active ingredient they were supposed to contain. And yet these products are commercially available at a major pharmacy chain near you.
The study didn’t name names — the study was effectively about quality control within the industry, rather than about naming-and-shaming particular companies. But it’s a damning indictment for the industry quite generally. (Just two companies among the 12 in the study sold products that were just what they said they were.)
Of course, many readers will know that this is not the first reason we’ve had to doubt the integrity of the herbal remedy industry, or the ‘natural’ health product industry more generally. As others have written elsewhere (including pharmacists with the scientific and critical-thinking chops to know the difference), Canada’s regulations regarding natural health products leave much to be desired.
But it’s nothing to laugh about. Unlike homeopathic remedies, which (unless adulterated) generally contain no active ingredients at all, herbal remedies can have actual effects, though those effects may not live up to the claims implied by their labels. Herbal remedies, while under-regulated, can at least have real biological effects. That’s a source of pride for makers of herbals, situated as they are within an alternative-medicine industry that is rife with outright fraud and delusion.
But it also means that the honest bottlers of herbal remedies should be at the front of the line, lobbying government hard for stricter regulations. Perhaps even more crucially they should be doing their best to convince the major chains that there’s a difference between them and the companies whose products failed the Guelph study so miserably. In the end, it’s as much an ethical matter as a matter of self-interest. The public deserves to be better served, and who better than those within the industry itself to make sure that it happens?