"Let my people go surfing..."

On Monday night The Crowd hosted an uplifting discussion between Patagonia’s Vice President, Rick Ridgeway, and CEO of Grant Thornton, Sacha Romanovitch, on the idea of corporate purpose. It included gems such as the Patagonia philosophy of “let my people go surfing”, allowing employees time away from work to catch the best waves whenever they like, as long as they don’t let co-workers down.  Yesterday I took part in the Responsible Business Summit, in a panel event about going beyond compliance, towards a mindset of positively doing the right thing. CBI President Paul Drechsler set the scene with a passionate call for business to work as a force for good, and Telefonica O2 CEO Ronan Dunne posed the conundrum of business crying out for digital skills – yet ignoring the huge pool of digital talent in unemployed young people.

PWC’s Malcolm Preston set out how business can engage with the UN Global Goals, including the video below which brilliantly makes the case for an ambitious approach. We even had what was possibly the best slide title I’ve ever seen - Northumbrian Water CEO Heidi Mottram’s “Power from Poo”, about how 100% of their “biosolids” are now turned into energy.

What was absent from both events was much disagreement, so it felt a little like preaching to the converted.  It’s brilliant that so many top business leaders are leading the way on corporate responsibility, but there is a danger of assuming that this attitude is pervasive.

 

Just this week we had Mike Ashley finally deigning to answer questions in Parliament about the appalling treatment of Sports Direct staff. The EHRC have found that pregnancy discrimination has almost doubled in a decade, with 54,000 pregnant women and new mums forced out of their jobs each year. When I was Minister for Employment Relations, I toughened penalties for employers paying less than the minimum wage and boosted enforcement by HMRC, because of the shocking number of companies – including some household names – not properly paying their staff the legal minimum wage. Going beyond compliance is the right thing to do, but we must not imagine that everyone is currently even meeting the basic legal minimum standards.


The trend towards greater transparency and disclosure is clear. Whether it is official data released through freedom of information requests, corporate reporting requirements and voluntary benchmarking, or unpredictable events where data enters the public domain through leaks, hackers and whistleblowers, companies need to be able to justify what they do and why.


Strict compliance with the law or rules is not sufficient - and glossy CSR brochures won’t save you. The public makes up its own mind on elaborate and convoluted tax avoidance schemes, or the strange geographical definitions of activity declared to the taxman by companies like Google, Facebook and Amazon.

 

 

The debate about responsible business is a live and important one, and needs to keep expanding to a wider audience. Businesses that don’t catch the crest of this wave and change to embed corporate responsibility in their DNA risk being submerged in a future reputation crisis.

 

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