A friend posted this article recently and then another emailed it to me and because my days are no longer scheduled in 15 minute increments I had time to actually sit down and read it (on my laptop even! not just on the tiny screen of my phone while curled up in bed waiting to fall asleep one night). It's a long read but worth it for this gem towards the end (emphasis added is mine):
Beyond building skills, business training must be about values. As I write this, I know that my M.B.A. friends are squirming in their seats. They’ve all been forced to sit through an “ethics” course, in which they learned to toss around yet more fancy phrases like “the categorical imperative” and discuss borderline criminal behavior, such as what’s a legitimate hotel bill and what’s just plain stealing from the expense account, how to tell the difference between a pat on the shoulder and sexual harassment, and so on. But, as anyone who has studied Aristotle will know, “values” aren’t something you bump into from time to time during the course of a business career. All of business is about values, all of the time. Notwithstanding the ostentatious use of stopwatches, Taylor’s pig iron case was not a description of some aspect of physical reality—how many tons can a worker lift? It was a prescription—how many tons should a worker lift? The real issue at stake in Mayo’s telephone factory was not factual—how can we best establish a sense of teamwork? It was moral—how much of a worker’s sense of identity and well-being does a business have a right to harness for its purposes?
The article's author summarily discounts most of management theory and encourages pursuing a philosophy degree instead (a debate for another day) but the above passage is what really resonated with me.
In business school, there is much ado made about Milton Friedman's insistence that "there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it stays within the rules of the game, which is to say, engages in open and free competition without deception or fraud." Some schools take a more thoughtful approach to the debate around this (still raging, even 46 years after the original article was published) and equip students with examples of companies who have rejected this doctrine and thrived in spite (or perhaps because) of it. Our conversation around this took place over roughly 20 minutes in my Corporate Finance class and left nearly everyone feeling even more certain that their original perspective was the right one. Not terribly satisfying or productive.
What I wish we had discussed (which indeed, was absent from our ethics course) was what different private corporations, public benefit corporations, and social enterprises consider to be their responsibilities and how they operate accordingly. We no longer live in a world where it's as simple as being for-profit or non-profit - perhaps it never was - but I see many people, companies, and organizations continuing to operate this way.
Beyond the question of profit is how a company operates. I remember one class where we discussed the merits of a fairly "woo-woo" employee engagement program. The program had a transformation impact on many employees' lives, far beyond their work at the company. They woke up each day with a sense of purpose and confidence that had been nearly absent before. Many students pointed to the lack of data proving the costly program had increased profits - where was the evidence that this program was worth it?
Maybe the point is that improving your community and the lives of your employees is enough.
Unless (until) your company is staffed entirely by robots, then your business is about values. Every choice you make, every employee you hire, every dollar you earn - they are all impacted by the values you hold as an individual and live as a company. So what will those values be?