If Corporations Are People, Do They Have Hearts?

In the past ten years, American business has been deluged with concepts emphasizing social good that range in name from cause-related marketing to sustainable value and other similar terms.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

When, in the landmark 2010 Citizens United case, the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that corporations have the same rights to self-expression as do people, the Coffee Party objected while the Tea Party celebrated. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared in Iowa, "Yes, corporations are people, my friends!" I'm not debating the merits of the case or the divergent perspectives on it. But, since this is likely to continue as an issue this fall, I do think that it's worthwhile to ask this question: If corporations are like people, do they have hearts? And, if so, why do a majority of Americans -- and especially young people today -- believe that corporations are selfish and strategic, but not kind?

While, in 2008, I was on the Purple America tour of eight American communities to gauge the shared values of America, I posed this question to Tom Hopkins, senior vice president of Sherwin-Williams: "Tom, do corporations share values with ordinary Americans?" To which he responded, "Corporations' values are not a whole lot different than America's values because their values consist of their peoples' values." He went on to say that, at Sherwin-Williams, the company has heart because their people have heart. In 2010, in the wake of The Great Recession, I asked him the same question, to which he pointed out that, despite reliance on the housing industry, Sherwin-Williams didn't lay off employees because "to do so was inconsistent with the company's core values of loyalty and doing the right thing." In other words, because of heart.

Back in the 1980s, when I did economic development consulting for the Blackfeet Indian Writing Company, which provided employment on the Blackfeet Reservation by manufacturing pencils, America's Fortune 1000 companies bought the pencils at a premium because they wanted to support the cause. Within limits, they didn't care about the price because they felt good doing good, helping to employ the disadvantaged.

But something happened in the mid-1980s. As leveraged buyouts became popular, and shareholder value became a buzzword, the companies that bought out of "social conscience" traded conscience for cost-cutting. Workers employed for 30 years in steel, textiles, automotive and other industries where they were accustomed to earning their "gold watch" were laid off. Both loyalty and social conscience went out the window, and the reputations of iconic American businesses for treating people well went right out the window, as well. Those in American business who wanted to change the world were called "dreamers," "fools," or worse. As Gordon Gekko declared in the 1987 movie Wall Street, "Greed is good!" From that point through the 1990s, outsourcing American manufacturing jobs to lower-cost foreign countries came into vogue.

Fast forward to 2012. You wouldn't have seen the image just described at last week's Social Innovation Summit, sponsored by Landmark Ventures, at the United Nations. At this event, businesses such as Hasbro, JP Morgan Chase, HP, Intel, Verizon, Coca Cola, Microsoft, Huffington Post, Starbucks, Facebook and YouTube came together with venture funds and non-profits to discuss how to collaboratively change the world.

In the past ten years, American business has been deluged with concepts emphasizing social good that range in name from cause-related marketing to sustainable value and other similar terms, all as part of an effort to spin goodness into business-speak. At this conference, there were companies who came to find out how to leverage social good in a way that resonates with their customers; there were executives who came to see what other companies are doing, and there were corporate citizens who came because they truly care to make a difference, choosing to do good while doing well.

I focused on the latter, which includes industry icons such as Alan Hassenfeld, chairman of the executive committee of Hasbro. Hassenfeld spoke up about not getting hung up on what it's called. "At the end of the day," he said, "American business just needs to do good, to have a heart. You keep good people by being good."

Jeffrey Swarz, former CEO of Timberland, advised the participants to look for ways to associate their products with more ways of doing good, because "you can make money while doing good, and doing good is good for business."

Adam Brotman, chief digital officer of Starbucks, spoke about the importance of business leaders taking responsibility for jumpstarting jobs -- as Starbucks has done by funding small business lending -- "because it's the right thing to do." And, as a challenge both to human and corporate complacency, Howard W. Buffett, grandson of Warren Buffett, reminded the group that, "Doing good does not excuse us from doing better."

It seems to me that the essential difference between the participants in the conference came down to their intention.

That's not a lot different than with most people. We all know people who are just not nice; we also know people who do good just because they crave having their names on buildings, belonging to the "right" clubs, or finding favor with the "right" people; and we know people who do good for goodness' sake.

Although some may resent their lack of authenticity, the end result of people who do good for the sake of notoriety (what I call "selfish giving") is that buildings get built, schools get funded, and the poor get assisted. Many times, even those people who do good originally for selfish reasons, like Holocaust rescuer Oskar Schindler, who initially rescued Jews to use them as forced laborers, become hooked on goodness because the process transforms them. Booker T. Washington recognized the transformative power of selfish giving when he replied to a question about tainted money. "There t'aint enough of it," he said.

From this, I conclude that corporations, like people, can grow a heart. It starts with the intention to put into action the values of Doing Good and Doing the Right Thing, combined with a conscience that nudges them whenever they err.

Companies that do this find that the benefits -- with customers, suppliers, employees, government and shareholders -- are enormous, and often then become evangelists, encouraging other businesses to embrace social goodness. Just as Dale Carnegie advised ordinary people on "how to win friends and influence people," the power of goodness can transform corporations into becoming "people" with heart! But, like the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz, they will not become human just because a higher authority says they are, but only when they get enough out of their heads to discover their hearts.

Share your examples of companies that are Doing Good on our Facebook page at Facebook/purpleamerica.us. To see America's shared values, go to www.Purpleamerica.us.

Go To Homepage

Popular in the Community