Yesterday, as part of my Business Ethics Speakers Series at the Ted Rogers School of Management, I had the honour of hosting Professor Alexei Marcoux, from the Quinlan School of Business at Loyola University Chicago. The title of his talk was “Adventures in the Market for Values.”
Alexei’s argument was that it’s almost always a mistake to let the values held by buyer or seller get in the way of a mutually-beneficial exchange. Or, to be more precise, he argued that we shouldn’t get into the habit of making purchases that way, or adopt the disposition to do so.
The argument was basically about what kinds of people we need to be in order to have a flourishing commercial society. The short answer is that we need to be tolerant folks, able to engage each other in commerce when we have shared interest in doing so. This means that we should make our buying decisions based on price, quality, and what we know about the basic ‘commercial integrity’ (i.e., trustworthiness) of the person or company we’re dealing with.
Why not care about the other person’s (or company’s) values? The argument is basically about character, or virtue. Our best ‘vision’ of a flourishing commercial society is one in which people put aside their differences to make themselves and the world better off by engaging in commercial exchange. Alexei quoted Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “It is through exchange that difference becomes a blessing, not a curse.”
But his argument also has a more directly practical element to it. For any given individual, commerce based on values is going to be irrational, leading to the purchase of goods that satisfy our needs worse than available alternatives. If the deal is a good one, you should take it. (Charles Barkley exemplified this attitude when he was quoted as saying, “I can be bought. If they paid me enough, I’d work for the Klan.”) Socially, the problem with too much focus on the other person’s values is that in the aggregate it results in what economists call “dead weight loss” — a loss in efficiency in the market overall.
Now two caveats apply here.
First, Alexei’s argument isn’t that we shouldn’t care about the values embodied in the products we buy. In fact, quite the opposite: he argued that we absolutely should want to make sure that the products we buy match our own values. That’s part of what is summed up in useful but dreadfully vague word, “quality.” What counts as high-quality paper will differ from person to person, depending on the values they hold. One person demands crisp, bright white paper. Another insists on “good enough” paper that is high in recycled content. His point is that you shouldn’t care about the values of the person you buy from.
Second, his argument isn’t that it could never be right to make a purchasing decision based on the values of the person you’re dealing with. We might be able to imagine extreme cases where doing so would be reasonable. (My own candidates include situations in which the person is the product, or when the values of the person lead you to have doubts about for example the integrity of a brand and the cluster of values the brand is supposed to represent.) Alexei’s point is that we shouldn’t make a habit of making decisions that way; that’s not the sort of people — the sort of community — we should want to be.
Why do some companies “go green,” while others are satisfied to go grey? Why do some develop robust sustainability programs while others sit back and watch?
Yesterday, as part of my Business Ethics Speakers Series at the Ted Rogers School of Management, I had the pleasure of hosting Hamish van Der Ven, a Ph.D. candidate from the University of Toronto. The title of Hamish’s talk was “Big-Box Retail and the Environment: Why Some Firms Innovate and Others Stagnate.” His main contention was that the main factor at play is the socialization of high-level executives at multi-stakeholder sustainability networks. In other words, what matters is whether the leaders of the company in question make use of opportunities to sit down with a range of folks to talk about sustainability.
The main competing theory of why companies go green is the theory that it all has to do with profitability. Companies go green, on this theory, because they buy into the “business case” for sustainability. That is, they come to believe that reducing energy usage, minimizing packaging and waste, and so on, will be good for the bottom line. Alternatively, they come to believe that being perceived as environmentally-progressive will win them customers, and increase profits that way.
But as Hamish rightly points out, that explanation suffers from a serious defect. Every company is subject to those pressures — they all want to cut costs and reduce waste and attract environmentally-concerned consumers— but only some of them actually put much effort into sustainability programs that will do those things. If the business case is such an important motivator, why don’t all companies buy into it?
Much more significant, Hamish argues, are the opportunities executives take, or don’t take, to open themselves up to internalizing new social norms. The process of socialization involves precisely the process of internalizing social norms. And that happens through social interaction.
And when leaders change their thinking, they tend to do a lot to change corporate culture. As the head of CSR for one major corporation told me, “We talked a lot about going green, but then one day the CEO called and said ‘Make it happen,’ so it happened.”
Of course, this isn’t just just a story about how policy-makers and activists can influence companies by influencing leaders. It’s also a story about how leaders can implement change in their own organizations. As Hamish put it, “If you sit down with people who think differently, you start to see things in a new light. We cannot expect change to result from [instead] sitting around a table with people who think just like you.”
Earlier this week I blogged about the intersection between customer service, ethics, and public relations. I pointed out that when the occasional grouchy remark turns into a pattern of disrespect, customer service becomes a question of ethics, and — in an age of social media — a potential PR nightmare.
But this raises a bigger question about the nature of the relationship between a business and its customers. Is the relationship between buyer and seller appropriately thought of as an adversarial one or a cooperative one? Ethically, is it right for a company to think of customers as friends or foes?
There are intuitive reasons on both sides. On one hand, buyer and seller have a shared interest in ‘doing the deal.’ They typically want to do business with each other, and both benefit from the transaction. On the other hand, every dollar a buyer saves is a dollar lost from the seller’s point of view. Every buyer wants a low price and every seller wants a high price, so the conflict is built right in.
We can name at least four different approaches to arriving at an answer to this question.
We might try looking at the question from the point of view of everyday ethics: people are people, and we should treat them honestly and with respect regardless of who they are. If fairness is good, then we should promote fairness in commercial transactions, just as we do in other areas of life. And that requires that buyer and seller at least see each other as equals. They don’t have to adopt a cooperative stance, but neither should they be adversarial.
We could instead take an economic approach. From an economic point of view, the interaction between buyer and seller is best understood as a ‘mixed motive’ game. In other words, it’s a game in which the players’ respective rankings of possible outcomes partly coincide and partly diverge. Both players would rather do a deal than not do a deal, but they disagree over what the best deal would be. If you’re in such a game, you should adopt an attitude that is neither fully cooperative nor fully adversarial. Unless, of course, displaying one of those attitudes moves the deal in your direction.
Third, we might think about this from the point of view of social conventions. It may well be that in certain cultures it is traditional (and perhaps widely accepted) that buyers and sellers treat each other as adversaries. And perhaps in certain other cultures it is traditional (and expected) that buyers and sellers will treat each other in a more convivial way. There are likely even individual industries typified by one or the other of those conventions. Doctors, for instance, are trained (and incentivized) to adopt a collaborative approach to their patients. Some stock brokers have notoriously adopted an adversarial approach to their clients.
Finally, we might think of this question from the point of view of corporate strategy. In other words, whether you think of your customers as friends or enemies — whether you adopt a collaborative or instead competitive attitude to them — might be a question of what kind of company you want to be. Some companies thrive on aggressive sales tactics; others thrive on a softer, more relationship-driven approach. Seen from this point of view, there’s no single, general answer to the question. Each firm needs to answer it for itself.
Regardless of how you frame the question, and regardless of the answer you arrive at, the attitude your company adopts towards customers is bound to become well known, especially in an era in which reputation spreads via Facebook and Twitter. Seller beware!
Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz has stirred up controversy by posting an open letter asking Americans not to bring firearms into the coffee chain’s stores, even where it is legal to do so.
“Few topics in America generate a more polarized and emotional debate than guns,” Schultz wrote. “In recent months, Starbucks stores and our partners (employees) who work in our stores have been thrust unwillingly into the middle of this debate. That’s why I am writing today with a respectful request that customers no longer bring firearms into our stores or outdoor seating areas.”
I think Schultz is to be commended. Not for the position he has taken, but for the way he went about taking it. His open letter lays out the problem frankly and even-handedly. Some people are in favour of openly carrying firearms. Others are made incredibly uncomfortable by the idea of armed civilians behind them in line while they order a grande, half-sweet, non-fat, no-whip mocha. And Schultz doesn’t want his employees caught in the middle, so he’s making a polite request.
But, not surprisingly, the request has generated a firestorm of opposition. Not all of that opposition was well reasoned.
Twitterers who screamed that their rights were being tread upon, for example, were doubly incorrect. First, it is important to note that Starbucks isn’t imposing a ban on firearms in their stores. They’re asking politely, and have given no indication that they’re going to do anything more than that. Asking politely doesn’t infringe anyone’s rights.
Secondly, Starbucks isn’t the government, so appealing to the Second Amendment right to bear arms is (no pun intended) off-target. The US Constitution and the amendments to it protect citizens from intrusions by government, not from (supposed) intrusions by other citizens or private institutions like Starbucks.
But this raises larger, more interesting questions. It’s easy for me to say that, hey, Starbucks is a private company and it can make whatever requests it wants. It could even outright ban firearms from its stores, if it wanted to. They certainly wouldn’t be the first to do so. The stores are private property, and Americans do have constitutionally-protected property rights. Schultz doesn’t have to allow visitors to his home to carry guns, and he doesn’t have to allow visitors to his stores to carry them either.
But there’s an important sense in which a big company like Starbucks isn’t “just a company,” and a sense in which its stores are not fully private property. Starbucks has over 13,000 stores in the US alone (and over 60,000 worldwide), making their stores the go-to spot for coffee, a soft chair, and free wifi for plenty of Americans. And Schultz’s own vision for Starbucks was to make it a ‘third place’ between work and home, a kind of quasi-public meeting place. And so there’s a sense in which Starbucks, like Google and Facebook, is effectively a part of our public infrastructure.
That’s not to say that Starbucks has the legal obligations of a government. That would be a dangerous position to take. But it suggests that the range of ethical obligations we attribute to big companies with an important role in public life are a fit subject for debate. Schultz deserves praise, I think, for taking a good first step by presenting his reasoning openly, and making it fodder for public discussion.
Tuesday (2 days ago) was the nominal anniversary of the Occupy Movement. Or maybe that should be the Occupy ‘Movement,’ with scare-quotes softening any suggestion that an actual social movement of any scope has arisen and persisted.
September 17 of 2011, protestors flowed into New York’s Zuccotti Park, a small private park just two blocks from Wall Street in the city’s financial district. Months of periodic mayhem in isolated pockets ensued, with Occupy sit-ins and marches happening in cities all over the US and to a lesser extent around the world. In theory, Occupy was a protest against economic inequality, a reaction not just to the gap between “the 1%” and “the 99%,” but to the widening of that gap in the years following the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.
In practice, Occupy became a rallying cry for complaints of all kinds. One Occupy rally I stumbled across here in Toronto featured speakers from a big trade union, members of which enjoy jobs that pay relatively well, and a representative of one of Canada’s aboriginal groups, whose complaints are legitimate but have little to do with having been left behind by capitalism. This dilution of the main Occupy message was unfortunate, since it virtually guaranteed that the movement would suffer additional criticism while at the same time raising the probability that such criticism would be avoid the real issue.
Two years later, it’s hard to see Occupy as having achieved much of anything, other than a lot of overtime for police and a few weeks’ fodder for the nightly news. Certainly its economic impact has been negligible. A year ago, on the 1-year anniversary, I suggested that the main lasting effect of Occupy was more cultural than economic, and that’s still true. Politicians now must now acknowledge income inequality in speeches, for example, but action has been scarce.
So inequality is now ‘on the table,’ but it’s not clear yet that putting it on the table means much in practice. I wrote two years ago that “Wall Street needs to be fixed, not occupied. Even a die-hard capitalist has to admit that there are problems with the way Wall Street runs, but those problems won’t be fixed by sit-ins. They need to come from an understanding, on the part of Wall Street and its supporters, that there are changes that should be made because those changes stand to make capitalism work better. Any changes that can’t be made on that basis — changes for example that simply redistribute money — will have to be made through legislation, if and when there is political will to do so.
Of course, Occupy doesn’t necessarily need to have brought lasting change in order to have been significant. It may be enough for that word to mark a moment in time. It reminds us that there was a day when people rose up in peaceful opposition to fight for an ideal. Even those who think the movement misguided should in principle be happy about its idealism. But then, it’s much harder to inspire idealism about the painfully slow, methodical route to institutional change, even when the slow and methodical route is the more plausible one.
Last week, a scandal sprouted on Canada’s east coast, when it was discovered that part of Frosh Week activities at Saint Mary’s University (SMU), in Halifax, included the chanting of a song promoting the sexual assault of underage girls. The news broke shortly after a video of the chant was posted online. Condemnation was broad and swift. Some were angry at the students. Others were angry at university administrators. Others simply lamented the sad state of “youth today” and the perpetuation of the notion that it is OK to glorify rape.
As it happens, I taught for about a decade in SMU’s Philosophy Department; I still have friends who teach there. I know some of the administrators involved in this case, and have more than a little affection for the place, generally.
My own particular scholarly interest in this case, though, has to do with the ethics of leadership. I think the events described above provide a good case-study in the ethics of leadership. That’s not to say that it is an example of either excellent or terrible leadership. But rather, that it’s a case that illustrates the challenges of leadership, and an opportunity to reflect on the ethical demands that fall on leaders in particular, as a result of the special role they play.
Two key leaders were tasked with handling the SMU situation. One was Jared Perry, President of the Saint Mary’s University Student Association. Perry has now resigned. Reflecting on his error, Perry said “It’s definitely the biggest mistake I’ve made throughout my university career and throughout my life.” The other leader is SMU president Colin Dodds. For his part, Dodds has condemned the chant and the chanters, and has launched an internal investigation and a task force.
A leader facing a crisis like this needs to balance multiple objectives.
On one hand, a leader needs to safeguard the integrity and reputation of the organization. Of course, just how to do that can be a vexing question. Do you do that by effecting a ‘zero tolerance’ policy, or by a more balanced approach? Do you focus on enforcement, or education?
A leader also needs to deal appropriately with the individuals involved. In this case, that means offering not just critique (or more neutrally, “feedback”) to the students involved, but also offering compassion and advice in the wake of what everyone agrees is a regrettable set of circumstances. In particular, a situation like this involves a “lead the leaders” dynamic. It is an opportunity for university leaders to teach something specifically about leadership to the student leaders involved. It is also, naturally, yet another opportunity for university leaders to learn something about leadership themselves; unfortunately, that lesson must take the form of learning-by-painfully-doing.
Finally, a leader needs to be responsive to reasonable social expectations. In this case, those expectations are complex. On one hand, society wants institutions entrusted with educating the young provides a suitably safe setting, and arguably one that fosters the right kinds of enculturation. On the other hand, society wants — or should want — universities to be places where freedom of speech is maximized and where problems are addressed through intellectual discourse. Indeed, my friend Mark Mercer (in SMU’s philosophy department) has argued that what the university ought to demonstrate, in such a situation, is its commitment to intellectual inquiry and to the idea that when someone uses words we disagree with, we should respond not with punishment but with open discussion and criticism.
Balancing those objectives is a complex leadership challenge. And there’s no algorithmic way to balance such competing objectives. But one useful way to frame the leadership challenge here is to consider the sense in which, in deciding how to tackle such a challenge, a leader is not just deciding what to do. He or she is also deciding what kind of leader to be, and what kind of institution he or she will lead. Each such choice, after all, makes an incremental difference in who you are. It is at moments like this that leaders build institutions, just as surely as if they were laying the bricks themselves.
Tanning beds are rapidly joining cigarettes in the “it’s only legal because no one has figured out how to outlaw it” category. Indeed, even their legality is slipping. Jurisdictions from Prince Edward Island to Texas, for example, are banning minors from tanning salons. Not surprisingly, dermatologists are pleased. Indeed, the Canadian Dermatology Association has issued a release, noting that indoor tanning “causes premature aging and… increases a person’s risk of developing skin cancer, including melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer.”
Is this a business that should exist at all? Sure, even a potentially-dangerous product can be used safely if used in suitable moderation. But the question here has to be whether moderation is the norm, and whether customers will know what moderation means.
Protecting minors is the regulatory low-hanging fruit. Protecting kids is an easy sell. Tanning beds pose a risk to anyone who uses them, but teens are in particular need of protection. Studies have suggested that younger people are more vulnerable to the harmful effects of ultra-violet radiation. And teens, in particular, tend to be both obsessed with appearance and under the sway of a general belief in their own invincibility. And According to the the dermatologists, “tanning before the age of 35 has been associated with a significant increase in the risk of melanoma.”
But beyond the case of minors, shouldn’t we all be free to tan at will? Well, yes and no. Freedom is a good thing, sure. But freedom in the marketplace is predicated on the idea that everyone involved is more or less rational and well-informed. This imposes an obligation on businesspeople to be honest and forthright about risks associated with their products. But tanning salons themselves may be promoting a number of myths that make artificial tanning seem safer than it is.
If you’re only still in business because no one has figured out how to make your product illegal, you should probably consider a new line of business.
The Quebec government’s proposal to regulate the price of books is wrong-headed in all sorts of ways. The proposal — or rather the range of proposals, currently being considered by a parliamentary commission — would likely involve fixed prices and/or a limit on big bookstores’ ability to offer steep discounts on best-sellers.
The move would amount to taking sides in the marketplace: not surprisingly, the owners of small bookstores (ones that can’t buy and sell in bulk) are in favour of the proposed regulations, as are their allies in the union of Quebec writers (UNEQ). And while it is sometimes reasonable for governments to take sides in this way, the reasons need to be carefully examined on a case-by-case basis, and clear analysis requires transparency about the fact that sides are in fact being taken, and that there will be winners and losers as a result.
Of course, it matters that this story is about Quebec, a jurisdiction that for years has seen its politics dominated by the perceived need to protect the French language. According to the UNEQ, small bookstores are “guardians of diversity,” which basically means they’re a source of French-language books. But then, I would wager that Amazon sells, or soon will sell, more French-language books than all the wee bookshops in La Belle Province put together.
In fact, it’s a bit weird that reports about this bit of news don’t mention Amazon. I’m no expert on book-selling industry, but it seems to me that the real battle is between Amazon and the big-to-medium-sized bricks-and-mortar stores. There will always be a niche market for cute, idiosyncratic little bookstores. What’s less clear to me is that there’s a future for bigger stores that merely try but fail to replicate in bricks-and-mortar what Amazon does online.
The most general reason why this proposed policy is a bad idea is basic economics: when governments choose sides in the marketplace, they are opting against the type of efficiency at which markets excel, namely the kind that brings consumers things they want at low prices, and that rewards producers for finding effective methods of production and management in pursuit of such consumer satisfaction.
It’s worth considering what the public reaction would be if the product in question were something other than books. What if the government of Quebec proposed keeping the price of children’s clothing high, in order to limit the impact of Walmart and to defend the little boutiques selling hand-made clothing. Would anyone seriously want to promote a policy making kids’ clothes more expensive this way?
But beyond basic arguments about economic efficiency, it has to matter here that the products in question are books. Isn’t literacy and reading more generally a good thing, socially? So isn’t it a good thing when books are cheap? The complaint of the small bookstores is that big stores making books too cheap. But any attempt to keep prices high is necessarily an attempt to keep some people from buying books. There will always be ‘marginal’ readers who will buy a given book at a reduced, big-box price, but not at list price. Of course, we can’t (alas) ensure that everyone has access to everything they want, but do we really want to exclude such people from buying those books, as a matter of government policy?