It bemuses me, often, when I see businesses that do not care about their reputation in the ‘privacy’ of their interactions with customers and stakeholders. For sure, we all make mistakes, or have bad days. But consistent wrongdoing or bad treatment of others always plays out in returns.
For actions do not happen in a laboratory far removed from any world. They always touch on people, who exist, and who will take decisions in future that are influenced by bad treatment today. And that’s the thing about ethics.
They may be something that takes place in private, far from the public eye, but private is never invisible and 1000 x private or 10,000 times private isn’t different in many ways from public. And behaviour is habitual. So, if a small business messes you up with a sudden stop of contract, be sure, they do it habitually.
A large business that declares a retrospective change of fees to you as a supplier isn’t doing it just to you: they didn’t agonise, it’s just simply an action within their normal range of actions, and they do it repeatedly.
The same with businesses that tell customers ‘too bad, you paid, you didn’t get what you paid for, end of story’. These, and the range of morally moribund ‘business’ acts that go alongside them, always reflect a deep-seated issue with the personalities involved. There is a problem in their understanding of ‘transaction’ and of ‘mutually beneficial’ engagements.
They have a disruption in their perception of power and the consequences of their actions. But that also speaks to the culture of a company in replicating personalities where fair play, decent behaviour and honourable treatment are not valued, or viewed as a ‘red line’ issue in determining retention versus dismissal. And that part always makes me smile, for it is the very same director who tells a contractor ‘the contract is gone, you can take us to court, but it will take you eight years’, who will also be robbing the shareholders, and often the company bank accounts too.
People don’t end up with a moral hole or inflated sense of entitlement in only a single interface, so if staff or decisionmakers are behaving like thugs in meeting rooms and on email, they are thugs. The same moral code will be shaping their behaviour everywhere.
So what does that mean for stakeholder engagement? It means this: ethical business isn’t some fluffy rabbit that whiny do-gooders thought of to make your life difficult.If you leg people over, they will not be back accommodating you another time.
Indeed, canny marketers talk a lot about ‘brand ambassadors’, but research has shown over and over that one crushed customer can deter as many as 20 other customers from purchasing in the very same year, and the impact can last for 40 years.
Of course, the real calculation that businesses make when treating stakeholders badly is that they are irrelevant to the future. But how often is that actually the case? Can they really keep moving so that those they mistreat are never relevant in any decision ahead?
That’s an extreme gamble in a world where so much is interconnected. We tend to operate in sectors, or in locations. Even if we change both, our trace is upheld through social media and mutual contacts: all of us know everyone on the planet in a chain of just five connections. So, before you do another forecast on where your business will be in five years’ time, do a stress test.
Write in a multiple of 200 negatives for every private breach of fair play your business commits, multiplied by many a week and month. You can add some extra downs for the days when that messed up customer is a judge on your awarding panel, or a background consultant for your potential investors: and votes you out.
And now see how your future looks based on embedded mistreatment of stakeholders. Then test your every interface for fair play, and fix the ethics, and write back in all the negatives. There’s no such thing as natural justice. We write our own futures with our actions every day.