Humanity 2.0 Panel Discusses the Complexities of Business Ethics
Humanity 2.0 Ethical Transformation in Business Panel was delivered by Brendan Doherty, Aza Raskin, Rick Ridgeway, Greg Medcraft, John Edelman, and Lynn Paine at Humanity 2.0 (Vatican City)
- In 2018, the number of people who reported misconduct in the workplace rose from 46% to 69%
- 16% of workers in the US reported being pressured to compromise ethical guidelines
- 76% of the general population say they want CEO’s to take the lead on change instead of waiting on the government to do it
(ESG News) – Harvard scholar Lynn Paine has been in the field of business ethics for more than three decades. And for the first 20 years of her career, the professor of Business Administration at the Harvard School of Business, found that she could hardly even use the word “ethics.”
“If I said I worked in business ethics, the quip back was, ‘isn’t that an oxymoron?’ It was sort of a contradiction of terms,” Paine said during a panel discussion on the Ethical Transformation of Business at the 2019 Humanity 2.0 Forum held at the Vatican. The event was filmed live by the Traders Network Show, hosted by Matt Bird.
Paine remembers one particular instance in the 1990s when she was asked to speak to a large financial institution about her research on ethical business practices. Only, there was a catch. She was told she couldn’t use the word ethics because it made people uncomfortable.
“These were people who were moving billions of dollars around the world every day, and were in some ways masters of the universe, but they were uncomfortable with this idea of ethics,” Paine said during the panel.
The discussion was moderated by Brendan Doherty, Co-Founder of Forbes Impact. It also featured Aza Raskin, Co-Founder of the Center for Humane Technology; Rick Ridgeway, VP of Public Engagement for Patagonia; Greg Medcraft, Director of the Directorate for Financial and Enterprise Affairs for OECD; and John Edelman, Managing Director of Global Engagement and CSR at Edelman. The lively conversation delved into ways in which businesses are meeting the moment in terms of ethical practices, as well as ways in which they are falling short.
Medcraft, who has worked on both sides of the financial sector—as a Wall Street investor and then as a regulator—says he believes there has been a change of heart on ethics among those in the corporate world. Unlike two decades ago, companies see that environmental responsibility and a commitment to social justice are essential to conducting business, because the public cares deeply about these issues, and social media gives them a platform to hold power to account, Medcraft said.
“Because if you don’t actually listen to what social media is telling you about your social license, you may not have customers, you may not have workers, you may not, actually, have investors. The world has changed,” he said.
Medcraft believes that “trust” is the most important word in a discussion about business ethics, because consumers increasingly demand to know how their dollars are being spent by companies—and if consumers don’t agree with a company’s business practices, they will take their money elsewhere.
On that theme, Edelman described his firm’s trust barometer, which measures a company’s environmental, social, community, and supply chain impacts—all of which now determine a business’s viability. And Ridgeway said that Patagonia had teamed up with an unlikely partner in Walmart to create software that could measure how responsibly a company behaved by examining its environmental impact and commitment to social justice. Ridgeway said that since the creation of the software more than a decade ago, 275 companies, representing half of the clothing and footwear made on the planet, agreed to join the group. Patagonia and WalMart were in the process of making the data collected available to the public, Ridgeway said.
“Transparency is the ultimate achievement in this,” he said. “When you go public with that data, it’s going to unleash a huge amount of force. That’s the theory of change.”
But even as companies profess commitments to ethical practices, real change is not so simple, the panelists agreed.
Raskin said the entire system is broken because technology influences our information, giving us what we think we want, even if it isn’t good for us.
For example, consider a car crash, Raskin said. When you pass an accident site, you’re likely to gawk, which could lead to more car crashes. Imagine, then, an AI algorithm that concludes that people love looking at car crashes and therefore keeps giving people more car crashes. “Which means, of course, you are going to live in a world of car crashes,” Raskin said.
By affecting what we consume, such algorithms change who we are and how we make decisions, Raskin said.
“We monetize based on engagement—that is, the ability to grab your attention. The biggest philosophical challenge moving forward is being able to distinguish between what is effective versus what is right,” he said.
Paine pointed out that publicly traded companies are still beholden to shareholders, despite recent dialogue about CEOs changing their priorities to focus more heavily on environmental responsibility.
“It’s not a question of right versus wrong; it’s a question of right versus right,” Paine said. Companies “have responsibilities to multiple parties, so how then do I have the imagination and the courage and the analytical skills to forge a pathway through these obligations that satisfies them all?”
She posed the question, if Patagonia were a publicly traded company, would it be able to implement such progressive practices on issues like the environment and maternal well-being?
Ridgeway acknowledged that companies like Patagonia need to go further.
“We’re not doing enough. We’ve got to be bolder. We’ve got to take more aggressive and risky action,” Ridgeway said.
But, as Medcraft noted: “There is a lot of sustainability washing at the moment, which, at the end of the day, is about talk, not action.”