‘Speech has power. Words do not fade. What starts out as a sound, ends in a deed.’  A. J. Heschel

There is a debate in the literature of business ethics about corporate moral agency – can a company have moral agency? It is often and widely considered to be the case that it can: for example, it is not unusual for a company to gain a reputation for being a polluter, like BP and Deepwater Horizon, or a good employer like Salesforce, placed top in the UK Best Workplace List. Is it actually the company itself which should be credited, or discredited, or is it the individuals within it? If it is the latter, which individuals can or should be held responsible for the company’s actions or their effects? Who amongst an organisation’s stakeholders can contribute to its impact?

These questions can quickly become either academic or legal or both and they are not the subject of this piece, however interesting they may be, but they serve as an underpinning for any consideration of corporate culture and behaviour.

For now, we will simply give consideration to the potential impact of business on society at times, such as the present, of extreme duress and disruption.

The ethics of business necessarily reflect the norms and conditions of their unique historical context. Generally, these norms evolve as they do in other areas of social, political and economic life. At some times, of which the current moment is undoubtedly one, something dramatic occurs which accelerates or disrupts the normal rhythm and pace of change.

At a time like this it is neither possible to predict, nor palatable to exhort, the extent to which moral, ethical or altruistic imperatives should prevail in business practice. When businesses in almost all sectors are literally fighting for survival and others have already succumbed, a ‘values first’ refrain might easily and understandably be met with frustration or derision. Survival is currently foremost in the minds of the leaders, employees and stakeholders of businesses of all but those whose model enables them to profit from current circumstances; and the survival of as many businesses as possible is a priority for government.

But even in ‘survival’ mode, our businesses and the way they choose to operate continue to have a dramatic impact on society. Many businesspeople recognise the importance of their contribution to the common good more acutely now than ever.

That societies will emerge from this crisis fundamentally changed is now beyond question. The changes will be manifested differently across the Globe and we know that in our own country the regional impact will be harsher on some communities than others. The benefit of hindsight shows us that in Europe the Black Death resulted, amongst mass economic and social devastation, in greatly increased wealth and political influence for a small number of large companies. After the pandemic of 1918, whose effects on mortality were also devastating, there was a powerful positive impact on subsequent economic growth.

We can expect, despite the grief, trauma and loss of this current pandemic that there will be opportunities following it for positive growth. The question for future generations looking back on this period will be how well we succeed in directing that effect. There is much talk of inclusive growth of green growth and of building back better. How do we turn those words in actions which make a difference? Should we rely on Government to incentivise our actions or can we be working now on the choices we wish to make to influence our collective future? 

Alison Shaw – Professor of Practice for Student Success and Progression at Newcastle University and Director NIBE