I have to confess, I was actually a fan of Google’s “Don’t be evil” philosophy. Predictably, once the company went public with it, the cynics were quick to tear it apart.
Was it naïve? Of course it was. The minute Google did anything that smacked of ethical transgression, there were scads of people willing to point fingers. But the fact was, at least Google was trying. It gave those inside the Googleplex a common code of conduct. More than one planning meeting’s blue-sky postulation ran up against the “Don’t be evil” mantra, which caused the conversation to veer in another, hopefully less evil, direction.
Some columns back, I talked about the corporate rush to embrace morality and voiced my own skepticism about this born-again fervor. I’m skeptical because I don’t believe that capitalism and morality play very nice together. It’s tough to make a profit and make the world a kinder place at the same time. I think you can certainly set your sights in that direction, but as Google found out, if you wear your morality on your sleeve, there are many who look for every opportunity to call “bullshit” on you. That’s likely why the company downplayed the whole “Don’t be evil” thing in 2015 when Alphabet was formed.
But I still think that Google generally tries to be good. And, perhaps not coincidentally, Google is now the most valuable brand in the world, according to Brand Finance
When you’re a huge company you have your finger in a lot of pies -- and some of them, inevitably, will upset someone somewhere. The trick here is that what is evil is in the eye of the beholder. Is Airbnb good because it's enabled a new option for travelers to connect with property owners and find better value accommodations, or is it evil because it's disrupting an established industry and putting thousands of people out of work?
It’s hard to combine the church of morality and the state of profitability. That’s why most corporations elect to keep the two separate.
Microsoft is a good example. Under the reign of Bill Gates, Microsoft was even called the “Evil Empire” because of its predatory and monopolistic business practices. Yet Forbes recently tagged Microsoft as having the second best corporate social responsibility program in the world, right behind -- you guessed it -- Google.
How do you reconcile the two views of Microsoft? Thanks to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Bill Gates is one of the world’s most generous philanthropists. He really, really, really wants to make the planet a better place. But as head of Microsoft, he also made a shitload of money (some of which he is currently giving away) by being an asshole. He, perhaps more than anyone, personifies the dynamic tension we talk about when we refer to corporate ethics.
Let’s go back to the value of corporate brands on the Brand Finance list and the role ethics might play. It’s a timely discussion, especially right now. United Airlines was heading in the right direction, 81 on the list, up a whopping 53 spots from 2016. But then the airline gave the thumbs-up to drag Dr. Dao down the aisle in front of an entire plane full of smartphone-equipped passengers. Pepsi was number 33 on the list. But that was before the Pepsi marketing execs gave the green light to the Kylie Jenner abomination masquerading as an ad.
There’s evilness, and then there’s just bone-headed, tone-deaf, shake your head in bewilderment stupidity. How the hell do these things happen? Even taking into account the “two sides to every story” factor, how did the multiple United staff members who must have had a part in the Dao debacle think that this could possibly be the way to treat a paying customer flying the “friendly skies”? How did the Jenner ad pass through what must have been multiple rounds of approval at Pepsi with no one whispering “WTF”?
Here, it’s an issue of culture. Culture is defined by Merriam-Webster as: the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization. And the tone of the culture is generally set from the top down. Corporate ethics depend on the ethics of the founders, CEO and executive management. While having a moral CEO might not be enough to guarantee consistent corporate ethics, it’s a lead-pipe cinch that if you have a scumbag in the CEO role, the company is probably going to be a pretty sleazy operation.
Culture depends on clearly understood values and practices that adhere to those values. If this is in place, it gives the rank and file the confidence to hold up their hand when “off-culture” things occur. It would give the United flight attendant the moral obligation to say, “What a minute. Maybe we shouldn’t drag a paying customer who had already been seated forcefully off the plane like a common criminal. That just doesn’t seem right to me.”
Things like Google’s “Don’t be evil” dictate may seem naïve in the corporate world, but it was a value that helped define the culture. Perhaps we shouldn’t be so quick to criticize it. Maybe we need more of that particular type of naiveté.