No, it’s not ‘just business.’
‘It’s just business.’
I’ve lost track of how often I’ve heard those words, uttered by businessfolk to justify bad behaviour. Also: ‘business is business.’
It’s as though there is something magically wonderful about being in business that gives you a free pass. Businesspeople are so heroic that we must give them some leeway, allow them to cut a few corners in their wonderful quests to bring great products to the people, and to create jobs for everyone.
Or should we?
I have been a business advisor for much of my life, so perhaps I should be the last to question the motivations and behaviours of business leaders. I do indeed believe in the power of businesses big and small to create products of great utility and to provide livelihoods to millions.
Is this power being used well, though?
Put businessmen aside for a moment. What would you say to an ordinary individual paying his househelp poverty wages? Or throwing toxic waste out into a nearby river? Or cheating on his taxes? Or corrupting local officials to look the other way while he stole from his community?
These are actions that should excite our outrage if committed by the common folk – so why should they be any different if the word ‘business’ comes into play? Greed is greed, theft is theft, and pollution is pollution, no matter who does it or why.
The profit-maximisation motive is only a worthy one if it is enacted within the confines of the law, and of common decency. Otherwise it becomes nothing more than the pursuit of unabashed, self-centred greed.
Do we want to be applauding the selfish actions of those who cut corners everywhere simply to maximise their own gains? Even those who cause buildings to collapse on innocents and kill them? Or those who supply fake medicines in full knowledge that they do not work? Or those who put effluent into rivers, killing them off for generations? How’s that as a profit motive?
For society, the undue glorification of scoundrels as ‘tycoons’ and ‘titans’ is just to invite abuse. We should respect and value those who have the guts to start their own businesses, certainly; but we should also demand that regulations are created and followed and misconduct is punished.
This applies in the boardrooms of mighty corporations as well. Bad things do not become good things just because we find fancy jargon to disguise them with. Let’s not hide behind words like ‘restructuring’, ‘efficiency’, ‘optimisation’ or ‘citizenship’ when our intentions are rather different. Let’s not be willing to look the other way when our fellow board members or senior executives are bending every law or moral standard simply to declare better numbers and pocket higher bonuses.
Business is no different from any other aspect of endeavour. You can’t claim to be a community-centred, devout person in your place of worship, but show us that you are a rapacious lawbreaker in your place of business. You are not forgiven just because ‘that’s business.’ Ethics and probity are not locational or context-specific.
The truth is that most people put on a show when they are on social display, and reveal themselves in their money-making pursuits. The willingness to gain by cutting everyone else to the bone, or by stifling competition unnaturally, or by compromising regulators is not heroic; it is indicative of a deep personal malaise. It is not to celebrated; it is to be monitored and abated, otherwise naked personal gain can lay waste to entire economies and epochs.
In my observation it all comes down to why someone goes into business in the first place. Those who do it just to make money for themselves are the ones to worry about, because that primary motive mostly overwhelms everything else. Employee engagement, customer excellence and social responsibility are mere slogans to those folks; something to pretend to uphold, smokescreens with which to confuse.
A precious few, however, go into business because they have a belief in a way of doing things; because they have thought of a product that will transform lives; because they wish to instil a standard in the world. To these people, monetary reward is a by-product of success; it’s not the success itself.
Let’s face it, there aren’t many such faces around. Too many are just hucksters and conmen, and there is no need to extol them as anything else.
(Sunday Nation, 3 November 2019)
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