Archive for the ‘blogs’ Category

Business Ethics Blog’s 6th Blogaversary

Today is the 6-year anniversary of the day back in 2005 when I posted my first entry on the Business Ethics Blog. This is my 885th posting since then.

A lot has changed since 2005. For one, the ethics blogosphere is more crowded — or should I say, more fruitful — than it was 6 years ago. The business-ethics blogosphere now includes blogs by ethics/CSR professors like my pals Dirk Matten and Andy Crane, as well as blogs by profs from neighbouring fields, like the corporate governance blog written by my friend Richard Leblanc. It also includes journalists like Marc Gunther as well as consultants like David Connor and Elaine Cohen. And, significantly, the ethics/CSR blogosphere is now knitted together, you might say, by a vigorous multidimensional Twitter conversation.

It’s also worth noting that a number of major business publications have also joined the fray, including Forbes and Fast Company.

The other big change is that my blog is now syndicated exclusively on Canadian Business magazine (most of my blog entries can be read both here and there). Besides inspiring me to blog more consistently, being featured on CB has enlarged my audience. That’s a very good thing, I think — not just for my own sake, but for the sake of having the broadest, most inclusive conversation possible.

So, dear readers, thanks for your support over the last 6 years, and here’s to continuing the conversation for another 6!

Yes, there is such a thing as business ethics

Marketing guru (blogger, author, etc.) Seth Godin posted a provocative blog entry called, “No such thing as business ethics”, in which he worries that the focus on “business ethics and corporate social responsibility” is distracting us from questions of personal responsibility:

It comes down to this: only people can have ethics. Ethics, as in, doing the right thing for the community even though it might not benefit you or your company financially….

Now I could quibble with Godin’s definition of ethics, which is actually a particular controversial view about what ethics requires, rather than a definition. But instead I’m going to take issue with Godin’s claim that all that matters in business is personal ethics, rather than organizational ethics. Godin writes:

I worry that we absolve ourselves of responsibility when we talk about business ethics and corporate social responsibility. Corporations are collections of people, and we ought to insist that those people (that would be us) do the right thing. Business is too powerful for us to leave our humanity at the door of the office. It’s not business, it’s personal.

Godin’s claim that “it’s not business, it’s personal” is problematic in two ways. First, it wrongly implies that business ethics somehow misses out on the whole personal integrity thing. That’s entirely false. Both the academic literature on business ethics and the “ethics and values” programs set up by individual companies put a lot of emphasis on individuals adopting the right values and making good decisions. Secondly, contrary to what Godin implies, individual ethics clearly is not enough. For one thing, people embedded in organizations have obligations that are role-specific. Just as lawyers and doctors have special duties that go along with their roles — they have to follow not just their own consciences, but also highly specific professional codes — so do people in the world of business. And for another thing, organizations can be set up badly such that all kinds of “good” individual decisions can still lead to problematic outcomes. The ethics of the organization, per se, matters a lot.

Interestingly, Godin tells us that he learned about all this from his dad. Unfortunately, while the homely lessons we learned at our parents’ knees tend to give us a good start in life, complex institutional settings tend to bring more complex duties, and hence require more complex principles.

Ethics on Business Magazine Websites

I’ll start by highlighting the obvious conflict of interest, here: my blog is carried on the website of Canadian Business magazine. In this blog entry, I effectively congratulate CB for highlighting ethics. So this is not an unbiased blog entry, but hopefully the facts I present here speak for themselves and stand on their own.

Ethics in business is clearly a hot topic these days, whether discussed using the word “ethics” itself or one of the mushier terms like “CSR” or “sustainability” or “corporate citizenship.” Even those who are cynical about the topic cannot deny that it is an important topic.

But here’s an interesting fact. At time of writing, only two major business magazines (Canadian Business and Fast Company) feature ethics and/or CSR on the front page of their websites. The Economist, Forbes, Fortune, and Business Week do not.

Here’s slightly more detail:

  • Canadian Business has both Ethics and CSR listed on the front page.
  • Fast Company has a link called Ethonomics on its front page (right at the top), which leads to a section featuring a pretty steady stream of social responsibility blog postings.
  • Forbes has a CSR blog but it is very hard to find if you start from the site’s main page. You need to click on “Leadership” (not at all obvious) and then you’ll see the link in the lower-right of the Leadership page.
  • The Economist has nothing ethics- or CSR-related on its main page, though to its credit The Economist does tackle relevant topics pretty frequently. (For an older example, see The Good Company.)
  • Fortune likewise has nothing on their main page (though if you click on the “Leadership” link, you get taken — oddly — to their Management page, which currently features a piece on philanthropy.)
  • Business Week likewise does nothing to feature CSR or ethics.

So, what do you think? Why are business magazines, and in particular their websites, so slow on the uptake? Is it lack of interest, lack of access to good content, or both, or something else?

HuffPo, AOL and the Ethics of Unpaid Labour

AOL bought the Huffington Post this week. Now, many of HuffPo’s volunteer bloggers are up in arms, accusing the left-leaning news-and-aggregation site of two related crimes: selling out to a (presumably) evil corporate media giant, and failing to share the wealth with thousands of volunteer bloggers who, over the years, have contributed probably millions of words to HuffPo’s archive of content.

But criticism was not limited to the volunteer bloggers themselves. Tim Rutton, of the LA Times, wrote:

To grasp its business model, though, you need to picture a galley rowed by slaves and commanded by pirates….

Adbusters — the slightly-past-its-best-before-date organization whose sole purpose is to bash capitalism and consumerism — put it this way:

Socialite Arianna Huffington built a blog-empire on the backs of thousands of citizen journalists. She exploited our idealism and let us labor under the illusion that the Huffington Post was different, independent and leftist. Now she’s cashed in and three thousand indie bloggers find themselves working for a megacorp….

On the face of it, this sounds like a strong criticism. Use unpaid labour to build a truly massive (and profitable) online presence. Keep that unpaid labour in the fold by espousing values they believe in. And then sell out for hundreds of millions to a corporation that almost certainly could not care less about the aforementioned values. It really does sound tantamount to slavery, with a touch of ideological treason thrown in for good measure. But to understand this better, we need to know a little more about the economics of blogging. As a good starting point, see this piece by stats guru Nate Silver: The Economics of Blogging and The Huffington Post

The fact is, however, that sentiments like [the LA Times’s] Mr. Rutten’s reflect a misunderstanding of The Huffington Post’s business model. Although The Huffington Post does not pay those who volunteer to write blogs for it, this content represents only a small share of its traffic. And, to put it bluntly, many of those blog posts aren’t worth very much….

Silver goes on to be much more specific, calculating the likely dollar value of the contribution of the average volunteer HuffPo Blogger.

The point is that for something over 99% of bloggers, blogging is a hobby. The contribution of most HuffPo bloggers to the website’s success is minimal. Those thousands of volunteer bloggers on whose “backs” HuffPo was supposedly built were likely more important as audience than as generators of content. Should the volunteer bloggers feel jilted? I’m reminded of a commercial from a few years back, in which a mom consoles her 8-year-old boy whose team just lost a game of soccer or hockey or something. “Did you try your hardest?”, asks the mom. “And did you have a good time? That’s all that really matters.”

Of course, if the volunteer bloggers are worried about the integrity of HuffPo’s editorial voice, you would think they would be somewhat consoled by the fact that Arianna Huffington is retaining the reins in that regard, and in fact will be gaining the key editorial role at AOL as a whole. But then, that’s reason why the rest of us should be deeply concerned, given Huffington’s penchant for featuring dangerously bad pieces related to things like healthcare, including some that are the intellectual equivalent of evolution denial.

Top Blog Entries of 2010

Here are my 10 most popular blog entries of the year.* Not surprisingly, the top end of the list is dominated by 2 entries about the BP oil spill fiasco.

  • #1. BP and Corporate Social Responsibility. This entry used the BP oil spill as an example to illustrate what I take to be the proper scope of the term “CSR” — i.e., something considerably more narrow than most people take its scope to be.
  • #2. Boycotting BP is Futile and Unethical. The title of this one is self-explanatory. I argued that the call to boycott BP was perhaps well-intentioned, but a bad idea. The boycott of BP’s retail outlets was much more likely to do serious damage to innocent franchisees than it was even to be noticed at BP’s head office. (Say, how did that whole boycott thing turn out, anyway?)
  • #3. Wall Street (1987) — “Greed is Good.” This one was basically a debunking of the standard assumptions about the significance of Michael Douglas character, Gordon Gekko’s, famous “Greed is Good” speech in the original Wall Street movie. Turns out, if you listen to (or read) the whole speech, most of it isn’t about greed, it’s about good corporate governance and crazy executive salaries.
  • #4. Should Trapped Miners Be Paid? This one brought together hard questions about employee safety, social justice, and whether the government (i.e., the public) ought to clean up a corporation’s mess when that corporation is unable to do so.
  • #5. Can Employers Tell Employees What to Eat? This one (about a Montreal handbag company that wants employees not to eat meat on the premises) struck a nerve, and brought out very different intuitions from different readers.
  • #6. Business Ethics in China. This entry explores the relationship between ethics and economic growth, in the context of an economy that is both struggling, and at the same time one of the world’s largest.
  • #7. Ethics of Hiring Illegal Immigrants. This entry was bound to draw fire, given that it’s about an issue at the intersection of business and politics.
  • #8. Facebook and Dangerous Ideas. This blog entry was about the ideas that drive companies, and which ideas are dangerous ones. Plenty of people assume that the dangerous idea is the idea that companies must maximize profits. Here, I argue that there are other ideas, including some that seem to drive Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg, that are far more dangerous.
  • #9. Competence, Ethics & HP’s Board. It was a rough year for Hewlett-Packard board of directors. This blog entry explores the extent to which a board’s failure to do a good job at governance becomes a matter of ethical failure. And finally…
  • #10. Chilean Miners: What is Rescue Worth? A mine rescue is heart-wrenching, and expensive. And every dollar spent on rescue is a dollar not spent on something else — perhaps spent more efficiently on achieving other socially-good objectives. In that context, how much it is worth spending is a difficult ethical question.

*Actually, it’s not quite true that this is a list of the year’s top 10. I moved my blog from one blogging service to another in the summer, and so I lost stats for the first part of the year. I’m pretty sure my January blog entries on the crisis in Haiti are among my most popular of the year, but the data are lost. Here they are:

Thank you all for reading and commenting in 2010, and for your continued support. Suggestions for improvement are always welcome. You can email me at Happy New Year!

Business Ethics Blog’s 5th Blogaversary

Five years ago today, I posted my very first blog entry. It had no real substance, but it was a start. Five years later, I’m still blogging. And given that the average lifespan of a blog is something less than the average lifespan of a fruit fly, I think I now get to call myself a veteran blogger.

Over the last five years, I’ve written over 720 blog entries. I’ve written on topics big and small and ridiculous. I’ve written about the collapse of major financial institutions, and ethical issues for small business, and monkeys working as waiters and the ethics of soccer balls. I’ve written about the auto industry, the wind industry, and the donut industry. I’ve written things that were pretty uncontroversial, as well as things that no one agreed with. And in terms of topics, I’ve covered environmental ethics, workers’ rights, corporate governance, and much more. And my audience has been just as varied. I know for a fact that this blog is read by corporate insiders, by CSR consultants, and by professional colleagues and their students.

And in case you’re wondering, my 3 most popular blog entries from 2010 happen all to be about disasters:

Thanks to all of you who keep reading, commenting, and encouraging. Knowing that you’re out there, reading and reflecting, is what makes this blog worth writing.’s New White Collar Crime Blog, by Walt Pavlo

Here’s a new blog worth checking out. Walt Pavlo is now blogging for, a blog called simply White Collar Crime.

Walt is a special sort of expert on white collar crime: he was for a couple of years better known as “Inmate Number 52071-019” in the U.S. penal system. You see, Walt did time in a federal penitentiary for his part in the multi-million-dollar MCI-Worldcom fraud. So when he writes about white-collar crime — what motivates it, what allows it, and what its punishment looks like — he writes from experience.

I first blogged about Walt Pavlo in August of 2006, soon after meeting him in person (we were both speakers at the same event for MBA students at the University of Tulsa). Then, a couple of months later, I interviewed Walt to get his unique perspective on the 24-year sentence that had just been handed down to Enron’s Jeff Skilling.

Now, not everyone wants to hear what an ex-convict has to say. Fair enough. (As Walt himself wrote in his first blog entry, Not Every Felon Is Worth Hearing From.) For my part, I’ve already blogged on why I think convicted white-collar criminals are worth listening to. So for now, all I’ll say is that in my experience, Pavlo is a thoughtful and insightful guy. I’ll be reading his blog.

Here’s a link to Pavlo’s book about his own role in the MCI fraud, Stolen Without a Gun.

Blogflict of Interest

BusinessWeek Online has an interesting story about blogger ethics this week: Polluting The Blogosphere (by Jon Fine). The sub-title says “Bloggers are getting paid to push products. Disclosure is optional.”

“You can’t believe anything you see or read,” complains Ted Murphy. “You think those judges on American Idol want to drink those giant glasses of Coke?”
It’s funny to hear him say this because Murphy, who founded a Tampa-based interactive ad agency called MindComet, also runs a side business that pays bloggers to write nice things about corporate sponsors — without unduly worrying about whether or not bloggers disclose these arrangements to readers. (A scan of relevant blog searches strongly suggests that, often, they don’t.)

I don’t have much to say about the story, other than to encourage you to read it. But this seems like a good opportunity for some disclosure from this blogger. So, what are the policies and practices of The Business Ethics Blog as far as corporate remuneration & advertising go?

  • I occasionally get sent free movies to review.
  • My blog entries often include links to books sold by Amazon. Because I run the not-for-profit (or just unprofitable) EthicsWeb Bookstore, I get a small commission from Amazon if someone follows one of those links through to Amazon’s website and buys someting. This helps defray the cost of running my various ethics-related websites.
  • I don’t currently have any advertising on my website, other than a link to the aforementioned EthicsWeb Bookstore. Not because advertising, or money more generally, is evil (which it’s not). It’s just that this website doesn’t get enough traffic to make advertising worthwhile. Plus, I know that advertising makes some people cranky, and I just don’t need the hassle.
  • I receive the occasional press release (from corporations, film distributers, and NGO’s), promoting their wares, innovations, and ideas. So far, the only such messages that have resulted in blog entries were offers of copies of relevant films.
  • So far, no one has offered me any money to promote or discuss anything. Odd, huh? Anyway, if that ever did happen, I wouldn’t promote anything for money without disclosing that that’s what I was doing.

[Thanks to Wayne Norman for the heads up.]

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