Business Ethics: Do Well and Do Good

Crossing boundaries to create common ground. Sounds so cliché, but it served as the context for delving into the most vexing and most urgent human dilemmas that face our society today at the 26th Annual Nobel Peace Prize Forum, March 1-9, 2014 (@NPPF on Twitter).

Boundaries addressed throughout the Forum spanned from national, religious, ethnic and emotional to political, financial and legal. To overcome these boundaries, the Forum’s organizers, three Nobel Laureates (The Dalai Lama, Doctors Without Borders and Leymah Gbowee), speakers and attendees sought commonalities over the course of forum discussions. Commonalities, the Forum asserted, are key to solving challenging issues because solutions stem from a place of understanding.

Brunettes, including Debra and Mackenzie of The Oath Project, jotting answers to the question “What can individuals and others in leadership roles do to change business for the better?” Me: support work/life balance and the individual’s pursuit of their own passions.

I found myself wondering, who takes time out of their busy schedules to attend a forum of this nature? It’s inspirational and designed for listening, conversation and introspection. It’s way big picture with topics driven by peace and positive change. How many of the attendees would be able to take these mind-shifting ways of thinking and integrate them into their lives or their company’s business practices?

During the four-day conference March 1, 7, 8 and 9, students, academia and business professionals, leaders in various fields were all drawn in by one or more of the daily themes: Faith and Peace, Law and Business, Science and Health and Global Day. I attended the law and business day on March 7. The keynote address by Michael Posner, Founder of Human Rights First; Professor at New York University, kicked off the day on the premise that business can be good at solving social problems.

Posner Keynote

Chris Farrell, MPR’s Marketplace, was in the audience as MPR live-broadcast Posner’s portion, then Farrell joined Posner on stage for the Q&A portion, fielding questions from the live Google Plus international audience which can be seen here. In fact, because the Forum partnered with GooglePlus as the main source of broadcasting talks throughout, you can find all Forum videos here.

Posner talked about moving our discussion to solve economic and human rights issues from states to businesses, “Half of the world’s economies are not states, they’re businesses. Walmart, for example, is comparable to Norway in size. We should be talking to companies about the change we are trying to make in the world.“

Posner cited two directions nations are taking in their approach to businesses and regulation. One: they advocate for high standards in terms of human rights, dignity and ethics for companies with little regard for the business desire to profit. Two: they are all for business profitability with low or unclear standards for businesses to adhere to. Ideally, we want this nation to business relationship to be about high standards and in support of companies making a profit.

If this can be the view of nations, what is the role of business in this equation?  Posner said it is increasingly difficult for businesses that operate in countries where human rights and dignity are not protected, to look the other way. Consumers are demanding more knowledge about the companies whose products and services they purchase. No longer can a business put a marketing band-aid on ill practices, they need to be transparent.

Businesses that choose this path understand that it’s a long-term commitment. Companies like Nike, Apple and Nestle have joined forces through the United Nations Global Compact, which asks companies to embrace universal principles and to partner with the United Nations. This is an important step because it leads to universal metrics, measurement, benchmarks, sustainable practices and transparency.

Other factors that hinder ethical and good businesses practices were cited including Wall Street’s demand for companies to turn a profit and meet quarterly expectations. Aside from all of the reasons for businesses to solely focus on profits, what if, for the day, we assumed all businesses were good? What would that look like? Posner left us with that thought as attendees chose one of seven late morning breakout sessions to attend.

Breakout Session

I selected the session More Than Empty Promises: Redefining the Role of Management led by Debra Wheat and Mackenzie Cane of The Oath Project. Courtesy of GooglePlus as an official Google Hangout session, three others joined remotely to build our discussion framework (Matt BurrKatie Kross and Wesley Adams). The room included about 10 professionals and 30 students. The session’s goal was to challenge us to face our hypocrisies about the purpose of business, dig deeper into what responsible management means and give attendees the tools to make an impact.

Photo: L to R: Jen, a future Oath Project Ambassador, Debra Wheat and Mackenzie Cane.

The session’s structure was set for success, with sharing of ideas from presenters, quiet time where we all took out our Sharpies to move around the room and write our comments on large paper based on ten topics (no talking!!), topic discussions in randomly assigned small groups and a one-minute summary, and the closing observations and take away concepts.

As one of the professionals in the room, I found myself contributing all of the negative points to the topics during the silent writing time portion, whereas students were more optimistic. An important part of the instruction, as I was reminded, was not to dwell on the barriers or why good business practices fall short in companies, rather focus on the “what would it look like if…” positive scenario.

In the small group portion, I teamed up with a Todd, a student from my alma-matter, The University of St. Thomas, to talk business ethics. We discussed the role of the individual to behave ethically and how leadership and corporate culture come into play. We landed on a few key observations:

  1. It’s difficult if not impossible to separate an individual’s values from their work. People are most fulfilled if their values align with their company’s ethics. If the company isn’t a fit, they eventually leave.

  2. Ethics come from the top. It’s one thing to have a mission statement and code of ethics, but another thing entirely if leadership is not practicing ethically or the corporate culture doesn’t support these.

After each group gave their brief summary on the topics including dignity, sustainability, truthfulness, mentorship, accountability and ethics, we received an overview of The Oath Project. It’s described as a model for providing tools to integrate the concepts of professional conduct and social responsibility into the culture, core values and daily operations of both academic institutions and corporations.

Ten vibrant graphics, one word associations and a brief description for each, serve as the Oath’s key tool.

At this point, the exploration we did on topics fit neatly into one key tool the Oath Project designed as a standard model and framework. This tool lives on the main page of their website as a scrolling slide show of 10 vibrant graphics based on 10 words and a brief definition for each word. Let’s take ethics, which reads: I will understand and uphold, in letter and spirit, the laws and contracts governing my conduct and that of my enterprise. You get the picture. Institutions and corporations start here, personalize it and further define it to suit their needs. Then the successful ones live by it.

I had other afternoon commitments unfortunately, so I ended my Forum experience. Others went on to another breakout session and closed out with keynote Ian Bremmer, President and Founder of Eurasia Group. Overall, it was an inspirational morning. It certainly has me thinking about change in business and possibly taking on a challenging yet rewarding role as an Oath Ambassador.

— Thanks to Beth Bowman, M.A., Assistant Director of Alumni Relations, University of Minnesota School of Public Health, for the tickets! The Nobel Peace Prize Forum is led by the Norwegian Nobel Institute and supported locally by Augsburg College, Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and the University of Minnesota School of Public Health as well as other academic partners and businesses.

— For more insight on the Forum in the Twin Cities, read the StarTribune 3.7 article.
— For more information on leadership, check out this 
TED Talk on the quiet power of introverts
— For more inspiration on why businesses can be good for solving social problems, check out this 
TED Talk
— And for the surprising truth about what motivates us, see 
Dan Pink’s video.