The past few years have a seen a growing focus on how leaders can be socially responsible. It’s a trend that’s already well-understood, but recent events involving Pepsi and United Airlines have thrown the issue back into the global spotlight.
The United Airlines example in particular proved that a leader can damage the public perception of both themselves and their company if they react in the wrong way. The issue here is that the right and wrong responses to an event aren’t defined by company process or shareholder reaction – but often by the public themselves. So, how do you put yourself and your company on the front foot and do the right thing?
Act because it’s the right thing to do
It seems like such an obvious piece of advice yet it’s so rarely followed. In many of these issues we see dragged across social media, people are acting according to rigid black and white processes when it seems clear – from the outside at least – that acting with common sense would offer a better solution for all parties involved.
Leaders set the moral compass for the organisation. The way they act informs the culture that the rest of the team follows. A senior leadership team that prioritises process over ethical decisions will lead a staff that is overly governed by procedure.
The challenge is being okay with that fact that, while certain decisions may be right for the company, the employees, the customers or the community, they may not be the best move in terms of profitability. That doesn’t matter if it’s the right thing to do.
The key to working out what the right thing to do actually is involves understanding an organisation’s purpose – we’re not just here to make money. It’s a view we’ve all heard from Simon Sinek. If you can get the “why” right, you can better understand what the right thing is by you and your employees.
When can you let common sense prevail?
Time and time again we’ve had moral and ethical issues make the news that prove business leaders and their employees have to know when a situation is in a grey area and can’t be solved just by following procedure.
For example, with the United Airlines case, the conclusion the flight staff came to didn’t make any sense. Yet somehow, by blindly following the rules, they found themselves in a situation that sparked mass outrage from the general public, leading to significant financial and reputational damage.
Following that, the leader came out and supported the employees in the statement. Sure, it’s the correct process to take when following the rules, and may well have seemed appropriate with the information he had, but it just wasn’t the right thing to do.
It’s a mindset that needs to be trained in staff, and they should feel like they have the opportunity to think through issues and not resort to ticking things off a list because they have to.
Not everything is about the bottom line
Making money is critical to the success of a for-profit company. We all accept that, but the purpose of company’s existence is so much more. Who knows what we’d get up to if every decision we made was based purely on the financial implications.
There needs to be balance framed around the mantra of ‘yes we need to make money, but we also need to stand for something’. The value of a strong purpose is something that always brings me back to Apple and the purpose Steve Jobs was able to instil in its workforce. By all accounts he wasn’t an easy guy to work for, but he was always able to curate and retain such a strong staff, one that shared in his vision for what the company could be.
The cases of companies getting it wrong recently are avoidable, but it’s up to leaders to set the standard and ensure employees know that not everything is black and white – sometimes you just have to do the right thing.