Big questions for business

Photo © Jenn Shallvey 2015
Photo © Jenn Shallvey 2015

I read articles and stories when they pique my interest. When I am compelled to read the whole story I pay attention.  The latest story to grab me is the article in the NY Times about the work practices of (you can look it up).  If you have not read the article I invite you to do so. I also invite you to skim, review and notice the responses now populating various online worlds.

Then stop for a moment and consider your response. I am very specific about this request. Why? Because the emotions are running high and people are reacting from all sides.  

News that provokes

I refer to the above article because I believe this story needs further attention. I want people to not react and run away from the problem but contribute to a constructive conversation. Here is a company that has over the years shaken up and completely changed the way we do business. The question now being asked, and actually being asked again and again, is at what cost?  The love hate relationship many have is evident online. The desire for convenience, low cost, worldwide access and choice attracts the broad global customer base that keeps this company going.  Jumping out at you are a number of articles and stories dotting the internet about challenging practices, decisions and culture.

An example to start us asking questions

This company is not the only one that deserves attention for it’s work practices.  There are others as well. And there are also examples where by turning a blind eye we only found out about questionable practices when it was too late - eg tragedy like a factory fire in another country, management fraud through off balance sheet liabilities or financial collapse through systematic high risk practices.  

In this case we only know what is being reported or has been reported.  From this information we glean a challenging workplace only viable for the fittest who survive.  This appears as a systematic way of doing business that is implicitly supported by the general public, management and employees.  The article referred to above seems to have captured more views from the outside than inside so maybe there is more going on than we like.  This company, given it’s size and name, is the one getting the attention right now. So as they play the role of scapegoat for a broader, wider problem perhaps it is time for a constructive conversation about business in general.

The big question that is staring us in the face

At what point do both consumers and business leaders trade ethics and the human element of business for low price, efficiency at any cost and fast service to be first?

Consumer choice

For the mainstream consumer, I think many choices we make in our economy are based on price. Yes brand, quality, convenience and reputation are other factors.  Think of fashion, food, cars, airlines and accommodation. You name it. Price is still going to be a big differentiator.  (Yes there are the traditional 4P’s of marketing as well.)  Just look at the online businesses, websites and other services that exist purely to help people price compare.  In this context many turn a blind eye to how a product or service gets to them because the price and convenience just makes it too attractive.  

Me too, and I am trying to improve

I am not saying I ignore price. For me it is about being fair. So if someone is going to take advantage of me over price I will challenge the situation. Yet I do weigh in a lot of factors in my purchase decision. And yes because of this I am definitely guilty of not being perfect in my decisions. I certainly do not claim to be the perfect consumer. I am conscious and still working on improving.  So knowing I am working on this I acknowledge you may be as well.  So no judgement, simply acceptance of where we are now.  I also am not coming from a place of I am better than you instead say I do my best and keep improving.

Conscious choice now and later

If I were to really think about all the options I have to make a conscious choice I think I would live without much of what I do now. Well at least for now. Whilst I am a proponent of change and creating more conscious consumer choices, the world currently is not geared up to serve the population on the scale that it does with 100% ethically produced services and goods. And when I say ethical I mean everything from paying fair taxes, to sourcing ingredients ethically, to manufacturing in healthy workplaces, to administering equitable human resource policies. It will take time to shift to my version of utopia.

Ideally I would shop at stores where the employees have a say in how they run the business, the goods are sourced in a sustainable way whether local or not, the leadership would care and want to contribute beyond the bottom line of the business.  I would love to shop at stores where instead of expose articles on bad work practices the press lauds management and all employees whether ex or current value the company.  Essentially I would like all businesses to be positive contributing corporate citizens in relationship with us not as servants nor masters.

Dream on you say, well I do.

Respond with consideration

Yet in the light of the article I refer to above, and others like it, and the reaction created in many I do think there are windows opening up. There will always be the vote with your dollar approach that gets organisations to wake up. The ones that are only focused on this end of the equation will feel it. But only if enough people do.  For me though this is a reaction not a response. It may make the person feel good in the short term but in the long term it forgets the web of businesses and people affected.  To get revenge hurts more than the target.

I think as well of brands where a ‘bad’ news story turns the tide of consumer behaviour against them. It does not take much to switch. All you need is a scandal or two. In some cases the downfall is legitimate because the organisation really did do something ‘bad’ - eg an Enron downfall.  Yet many others I think are trying to do their best and sometimes seem to get caught in the efficiency return ratio game. Sometimes in the pursuit of extracting the most that can be taken from all resources a company might develop a culture where it forgets the human part of the resources.

Trying to change

I remember reading an article a few years ago mentioning a global company that decided to take some of its profit and reinvest it in their employees. This was met with derision from analysts and investors. The only interest was in the return. So instead of supporting the business for it’s leadership in making the company a great place to work they were rewarded with a decline in share price.

For me the litmus test of whether business is performing well needs to change. If we only focus on one thing - eg share price or bottom line - then we get the behaviour we see in articles above. If we focus on more, go beyond, we get more. Perhaps dare I say we might even get even more companies that do good, make a difference and start to contribute positively to the community and world around us.

Take a breath and be patient

I also think there is a need for the consumers of this world to pause for a moment and think. Have we also become impatient, so impatient that we are driving demand for goods and services to be delivered in this way?  The pursuit of delivering exceptional customer service means for some delivering the quickest turnaround. We now expect companies to race to serve us. Is this realistic? Is this even healthy?  

In a world where we are used to getting information instantly at our fingertips, movies at the press of a button, packages delivered to our doorstep today, we are now in a constant state of impatience. This impatience is on both sides. We are almost co-dependent in this regard.  Think about it. The more we expect instant service the more we drive companies to drive it’s employees to deliver this instant service.  What do we compromise? We also breed dissatisfaction, expectation gaps and judgement.

Improving efficiency, cutting slack and waste are great improvements in any business.  Yet driving people to beyond human levels, because we can, just to deliver faster and more, does not improve the business. The cost may be more than a few people’s health. It might be a whole way of life. Ultimately it might even be the brand.  We accelerate and never know how to stop, slow down or pause.  To me that is a cost to society.

Sometimes its a way but does it have to stay that way?

I also appreciate that there are many businesses where the culture is intense, no life balance, with exceptionally long hours and people knowingly sign up for the work. This accepted way of working challenges me but there will be people willing to do the work because of what it means. This situation I will leave for another post.  But for now just take for example becoming a chef in a top restaurant. You just need to watch a few cooking shows and talk to people in the business and know it is not for the idle. Yes chef. No chef.  There are people who still want to work their way up this ladder because of what it means for their passion and cooking and the pursuit of perfection. Do we boycott the restaurants that serve food because of this? No.  On some level we are quietly saying that the people who work in these places choose this lifestyle.  

But I do not believe that industry practices need to stay the way they are because 'this is the way things have always been done'. I also do not believe that just because people are willing to work in such environments that these environments are constructive and need to continue this way. If this was the case we would have no women at work, rampant harassment and no diversity at all (though I appreciate we are still working on some of these matters as well depending on the workplace).  

Passion for inspired leadership

Yes you will say I am ideal. Yet my response to all the conversation about this latest expose´ is why not start a conversation to change the way we do business?

Maybe it’s time that the people who are influential in the world say something?

Maybe rather than watching on the sidelines business leaders start to ask questions, create new ways and do this together?

Maybe we can acknowledge we will not change everything overnight yet we can certainly do something constructive now.

For me this is why I am passionate about helping the next wave of leaders do things differently. It is my contribution. I may not be here running a global organisation creating change. Yet I certainly believe that as a coach, advisor and confidant to leaders moving in new directions that I make a difference.

Perhaps even these words will inspire you to reflect as a leader and decide today to do something different in the way you work and choose to lead others.