GEORGE PITCHER: What space left for true human values in business?

Every American child of Ivy League parents will have been read a Christmas tale by the short-story writer O. Henry.

It tells of poverty-stricken newly-weds Della and Jim, desperate to buy each other Christmas gifts. So Della sells her long tresses of hair and uses the money to buy Jim a chain for his watch.

At their meagre dinner that night, she discovers Jim has sold his watch to buy her a set of combs for her hair. So they’re left with presents that neither can use, and realise how priceless is their love for each other.

Business ethics: Mark Carney, a former Governor of the Bank of England and the Bank of Canada, has argued that the capitalist principle of market value has eclipsed our human values

This sentimental little story was retold by Mark Carney early this Advent, to start his astonishing series of Reith lectures for the BBC. 

I use the word ‘astonishing’ because here is a central banker, a former Governor of the Bank of England and the Bank of Canada, arguing that the capitalist principle of market value has eclipsed our human values. 

Banking, frankly, could do with a bit of humility if it is to serve a social, as well as financial, purpose for us all.

His contribution adds to a sense this Christmas that nothing can ever be the same again. We can be forgiven for greeting that idea with doleful hearts. The notion of a permanent break with the past and the prospect of broad sunlit uplands in a brave new world are straws we clutch at in the winds of international crises or upheaval.

We heard it said when the Berlin Wall fell just before Christmas in 1989. We heard it again at Christmas 2008, in the midst of the global financial meltdown. And now, at Christmas 2020, we hear yet again that nothing will be the same again as a consequence of this Covid pandemic.

But old habits returned after 1989 and 2008, so many of us will exhale a weary ‘plus ca change’ sigh and assume that, when these lockdowns are over, normal, rapacious capitalist practice will resume.

Perhaps this time that’s over-cynical, though, because it’s not just Carney who is interrogating the primacy of the financial markets. When Martin Wolf, in the Financial Times, this month concluded that economist Milton Friedman, the high priest of market hegemony, was wrong, we truly know times are a-changing.

This paper’s Ruth Sunderland, I note, has argued this autumn that the way some businesses have behaved during the pandemic has shown that ’50 years on, it’s time to leave Friedman behind’.

The corporate runes are there to be read. Not just the dismal spectacle of once-magical retail empire Arcadia collapsing, taking some 13,000 jobs with it while its creator, Sir Philip Green, drifts on his yacht.

Previously-virtuous retail groups such as John Lewis and Co-op have been caught morally short too, failing to return Covid business rates relief to the Exchequer.

Part of the problem is that old-style, top-down management very often doesn’t know what business ethics are. Directors will put up bike racks at work and recycle their office paper while booking their 2023 Christmas shopping long-haul flights to New York.

But the real challenge is to create a culture that fosters ethical behaviour at all levels, that democratises virtues so that they grow up from the staff base of an organisation. Virtue ethics came from the classical Greek school and prevailed for a couple of millennia before the 17th century Enlightenment swept them aside.

They’re all about character: ‘What should I do?’, which is a question about individual values, rather than ‘What should I do?’ – an inquiry about rules and regulations.

We won’t crack that key difference in the way that companies behave until everyone, from the bottom to the top, knows how to make virtuous decisions.

You don’t get a better example of bottom-up management of values than the Christmas story. The creator of the entire universe – the top boss – reveals the ultimate power of humanity in a vulnerable baby, born among animals and an oppressed people.

In terms of the common good, this event really did change everything. Nothing really would be the same again. That’s quite some bottom-up management exercise.

And the corporate slogan that grew out of it? ‘Love your neighbour as yourself.’ Still today, amid the white noise of health restrictions and the promises of corporates dealing with employees, customers and the wider community, it remains our core value this Covid Christmas.  

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