I participated in a ‘corporate social responsibility’ forum at a local university the other day. It revolved mostly around the academic delivery of courses and thus most attendees were from universities, though there was a scattering of business leaders (actual communities & social performance practitioners with field experience were in short supply!). In the end most of the forum presentations and discussion were around ‘business ethics’. Of course, an important part of ‘responsibility’ in business is ethics. However, in my view, this generally revolves around individual ethical stances and dilemmas. This is fine, but I wondered: can a business be ‘ethical’ or, can only individuals within the business be ethical?
In terms of big picture issues, such as human rights, community engagement, business impacts and management thereof, I think a focus just on ‘ethics’ is misplaced, or at least insufficient. Of course, individuals involved in, say, a mining or oil and gas project, need to have values stemming from an ethical mindset. But what is the use of this if their organization does not have sound standards, policies and practices – structures and processes – that require the business to engage strategically, actively and positively with their host communities? Behavior of individual employees and contractors can often lead to community problems. Perhaps this is where an ethical perspective can have its greatest impact. However, if there is no sound communities engagement framework within which the business operates, trying to change individual behavior may be something of a hollow effort!