Category Archives: Social Conscience

The Week in Ethics: Gillette’s Leadership, the Backlash and Possibility

 

Gillette released this week a short film “We Believe: The Best Men Can Be.” Some criticize it as an attack on men; others disagree and see it as inspiring and hopeful. My take is the under two-minute video illustrates another Fortune 500 company’s courage and leadership to try and use the power of its brand to create a conversation about personal accountability in how others are treated. And let’s face it, that conversation is overdue.

The video’s message is “things have gotten out of control.” It calls out bullying, “boys will be boys” justifications, “toxic masculinity,” gender put downs and sexual harassment and assault. It calls on men “…to say the right thing, to act the right way.” Pointing out that “some already are, in ways big and small, but some is not enough because the boys watching today will be the men of tomorrow.”

I grew up in the city where Gillette is headquartered. For over 100 years it has carried itself, and been accepted, as an icon of masculinity. At the same time, what is meant by femininity has undergone an evolving transformation since women gained the right to vote in 1920. The meanings of respect, fairness, inclusion and trust still shudder for mutual acceptance. Gillette is stepping up and into a maelstrom of public emotions and opinions about power and its abuse, clearly doing it wide eyed. The company, and its parent Procter and Gamble, had to know there would be fallout. The question is what role can they play in leading by example and supporting an evolving definition of masculinity now that their ad has become a focal point of attention?

Gillette, wrote, in explaining its video, “that brands like ours play a role in influencing culture. And as a company that encourages men to be their best, we have a responsibility to make sure we are promoting positive, attainable, inclusive and healthy versions of what it means to be a man.” The company pledged “to actively challenge the stereotypes and expectations of what it means to be a man everywhere you see Gillette.”

As with the experience Starbucks faced in 2015 in its “Race Together” initiative on racial inequality, Gillette’s video immediately proved controversial — offensive to some (a call for a company boycott) and garnering praise for the backlash it is creating. Stepping up to address social problems is tricky for companies as Starbucks learned; there were mistakes along the way as Starbucks acknowledged in how it made sure it was leading by example.

However, when attempting difficult conversations (whether in the living room, classroom, break room, board room or using social media as a platform) it won’t be perfect. In the best of intentions and aspirations, mistakes will be made but so will progress. Mistakes anticipated and prepared for (the smartest way), or addressed when made, chart progress in how to improve individually, as a culture and as a society. If nothing really important is attempted, learned from and tried again, nothing changes.

For 30 years Gillette has used the tagline “the best a man can get.” They’ve changed it to “The Best Men Can Be.” The company statement on the video continues: “we have spent the last few months taking a hard look at our past and coming communication and reflecting on the types of men and behaviors we want to celebrate. We’re inviting all men along this journey with us – to strive to be better, to make us better, and to help each other be better.”

Gillette’s closing line in the video — “It’s only by challenging ourselves to do more that we can get closer to our best”– could be the motto of a team striving to win the Olympics. It also expresses the aspiration and rigor we should expect of business leaders and all of us in the conversations ahead.

Gael O’Brien, January 17, 2019, The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is an executive coach, consultant and presenter focused on helping leaders and organizations build trust, engagement and reputation. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is a Business Ethics Magazine columnist. Gael is a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University and a Senior Fellow Social Innovation, the Lewis Institute, Babson College.

 

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The Week in Ethics: Project 22

Memorial Day in the United States is more than remembrance; it is also a catalyst for a discussion that needs to occur throughout the year.

As a day, it is about respect and remembrance honoring those who’ve died in wars or military actions as well as remembering those dead who were also veterans. However, it also raises the ongoing question about respect and support for veterans who are living. Particularly those sent into conflicts or combat in places around the world, returning wounded or with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), where we’ve intervened to protect people, principles or governments without sufficient agreement or understanding at home about whether we should be fighting those battles.

So this begs the question of what additional support is needed? Statistics that 22 veterans commit suicide each day may not give us yet the full context for these deaths, but it makes it harder to ignore a longstanding problem that haunts many veterans.

Daniel Egbert and Doc King, co-founders of Medicinal Missions, are combat-wounded veterans who created Project 22, which started as a 6,500 mile cross-country awareness campaign about veteran suicide; they interviewed researchers, health care providers and veterans. The results of their trip is a just-released, 102-minute documentary, called Project 22, of the stories of loss, survival and hope that Egbert and King heard.

I learned about the film from a student taking an ethics course I taught. Dealing with PTSD after his return from combat duty and taking a full course-load, as well as navigating a part-time job and family responsibilities, he acknowledged that he thought about suicide every day. Support from his family and others kept him going, he said, but the question haunting him is why he survived when so many in his unit were killed. Home a year, he indicated that he hadn’t, as of last month, been able to get an appointment at a Veterans Administration hospital. Revelations about long waits to receive care in the VA Health System received much attention in the last few years, but recent reports indicate not enough has changed.

While a recent poll indicated returning veterans feel much more is needed to help them find jobs and transition to civilian life, companies (including Cisco, General Electric and Starbucks) universities, states and the federal government (including the VA) have stepped up with room for so many more to do so. Pubic recognition is mixed. Goodwill gestures to pay tribute to veterans at sporting events, for example, are often genuine but lose  value when hijacked to be more about promoting others’ brands than the veterans themselves.

The issues of returning home after military service are more complex when the service is not viewed the same way that fighting was in the World Wars. Ways of being grounded by a sense of belonging, feeling valued and sacrifice that mattered need to have a huge internal quotient to compensate for gaps in external validation.

We are a society of huge achievements. That helps guide us in looking at ways to address unmet needs.

A documentary like Project 22 opens wider avenues of conversation and potential collaboration around ways of better understanding and meeting needs.

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien, May 25, 2015

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. She is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine.

 

 

The Week in Ethics: Why Purpose Matters to Leaders

Leaders who unite their teams around a purpose beyond creating profit redefine what is possible. They show a road map for how collectively each person can have a positive impact on customers, an industry, community, and society. The lens these leaders hold up allows individuals to see how they can make a difference, a key element in employee engagement.

We don’t hear a lot about companies that are focused on a bigger purpose because they are far less likely to derail and become headlines in scandals or crises. They are grounded by company values which creates a common language and sense of “we,” which is a ballast in the constant change of our unpredictable world. Unilever and its Sustainable Living Plan is an illustration of purpose in action that is part of a business strategy. It sets out a plan that expects the company to double in size while also decreasing its environmental footprint and increasing the company’s positive social impact.

Business can no longer afford to be a bystander,” according to Unilever’s CEO Paul Polman, “content to sit on the sidelines doing the minimum necessary to acquire its ‘license to operate.'” Polman is also one of the founding leaders of the B Team, a global initiative calling for a new kind of leadership — more inclusive and driven by a moral compass. The B Team seeks to redefine obligations to stakeholders — replacing maximizing profit with a focus on people, planet and profit.

The “business as usual” short-term profit lens has spewed out all kinds of red flags morphing into the recent financial meltdown among other problems. Last fall, a Washington Post column “How the cult of shareholder value wrecked American business” addressed the “self-reinforcing cycle in which corporate horizons have become shorter and shorter” with reduced CEO tenures and patience for the long-term, as well as the decreased average time stocks are held (now less than six months).

The irony, columnist Steven Pearlstein wrote, is that the focus on maximizing shareholder value hasn’t actually done that much for shareholders.  “My guess,” he said, “is that it will be a new generation of employees that finally frees the American corporation from the ­shareholder-value straightjacket. Young people — particularly those with skills that are in high demand — today are drawn to work that not only pays well but also has meaning and social value.”

The push for purpose has many advocates in addition to Gen Y employees. The impact social entrepreneurs are having on creating positive social change as well as global giants like Unilever demonstrate that innovation, financial gain and societal benefit can fuel each other. Research also supports that purpose is as great a motivator as profit as Daniel Pink pointed out in Drive.

Purpose matters.

Inspired leaders know, says Simon Sinek, that “people don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.”

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien, January 23, 2014

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine. She is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine; her December 2013 column is “Why Do Good People Do Bad Things? The Role of Spiritual Intelligence.”

The Week in Ethics: Pepsi’s Advertising Disconnect From Social Responsibility

Update: May 4, 2013: Pepsi pulled the ad, but a segment of the ad is still available to view as of today here 

Having a woman CEO hasn’t sensitized those at Pepsi making advertising decisions based on an ad pulled this week showing a hysterical blond, battered, white woman intimidated by a policeman who is drinking a Mountain Dew demanding that she pick her batterer out of a line up of African-American men and a goat.

The ad, part of a series, developed by Tyler, The Creator, an African-American rapper, is a reminder that in the search for hip the lens of celebrity has its own focus.

Does Pepsi’s pulse on America really think the new edgy is taking half-a-dozen demeaning stereotypes, throwing them at the wall and not caring what sticks as long as you notice the can of soda?

The ad blunder for Mountain Dew is a reminder to companies that the definition of corporate social responsibility goes beyond the dollars they give to improve causes important to them. If they don’t link their influence in the world to how they sell products, their corporate responsibility becomes just veneer.

When every nine seconds in the U.S. a woman is beaten or assaulted  (the leading cause of injury to women), when a Georgia High School just had its first-ever integrated prom, when a Chicago Police Department is criticized for racial stereotyping and ”accidental racist” is too common……when rape in India — a four-year-old girl sexually assaulted died this week — continues to underscore attitudes toward women and girls — pandering to demeaning stereotypes in attempts at hip and wannabe amusing advertising betrays corporate responsibility.

USA Today illustrates recent advertising missteps that resulted in bad press and pulled ads: parodies of suicide (Hyundai zero emission cars) and depressed women (McDonald’s regional Big Mac ad) and Ford’s depiction of sexily-dressed women bound and gagged in the back of a Figo compact car — all tributes to bad judgment.

Hip is seductive– it crowns itself its own cool, evaporates in backlash and leaves corporate responsibility without much to say for itself.

Gael O’Brien May 2, 2013

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine; she is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine — her April column is about the road to second chances.

The Week in Ethics: 2012 Leadership Wins and Losses

One of the most powerful lessons from 2012 is how leaders use their influence.

Consider some examples of career sky dives from three men highly regarded in their field who failed to use their influence in ways to keep trust with  their constituencies: former CIA Director David Petraeus (an affair with his biographer); former Penn State University President Graham Spanier (criminal charges filed); and Lance Armstrong (stripped of all seven Tour de France medals).

Demonstrating effective personal influence tackling social or political issues is a hard road for CEOs, presumably easier for politicians. In the examples of the leaders of the City of New York, Chick-Fil-A, and Patagonia there were mixed results.

At the University of Virgina (UVA), influence was exerted over organizational change in a manner that drew widespread criticism.

While not all politicians are willing to risk using political capital to further social issues, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg risked unpopularity in escalating his war on obesity by banning the sale of large sugary drinks. The ban approved in September by New York City’s Health Board takes effect in March 2013. New York is the first U. S. city to take such action.

“It’s not perfect, Bloomberg said, “it’s not the only answer, it’s not the only cause of people being overweight – but we’ve got to do something. We have an obligation to warn you when things are not good for your health.”

Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy found himself in a firestorm of controversy last summer when the national restaurant chain used company dollars to support anti-gay marriage groups; this pleased some patrons, disenfranchised others and resulted in widespread protests that continued with different players once the company indicated it would no longer support political or social issues.

Patagonia’s founder and chairman Yvon Chouinard has become a leading corporate voice in environmental responsibility by taking small, consistent steps to address how his company does business. He has served as a volunteer adviser to Wal-Mart in green business practices. Patagonia’s mission statement seeks to bring people together: “Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”  

Chouinard’s 2012 book The Responsible Company: What We’ve Learned From Patagonia’s First 40 Years  includes a checklist of 263 recommendations to help companies benchmark where they are and where they might want to be to improve their environmental track record.

An accrediting body accused UVA’s Board of Visitors of using its influence to compromise the institution’s integrity, and failing to follow appropriate governance procedures in the ouster of President Teresa Sullivan. Sullivan was reinstated after faculty and student protests.

Rector Helen Dragas (Board of Visitors’ chair) had a vision for the university that didn’t include Sullivan leading it; Sullivan had been hired two years before. Citing challenges facing higher education, Dragas led an effort to force her out  that met with strong, but civil, resistance from university constituencies who supported both Sullivan and a university culture that didn’t handle disagreements in the manner used by the Board of Visitors.

Governor Bob McDonnell reappointed Dragas to another term; however she has been meeting with Virginia legislative leaders lobbying to keep her position; the Legislature, which vets gubernatorial appointments, will vote in January on her reappointment.

Authority has limits. Influence fueled by earned trust has an infinite spectrum in which to operate.

Gael O’Brien December 31, 2012

The Week in Ethics

Gael O’Brien is also a columnist for Business Ethics Magazine; her December 2012 column is “Women in the C-Suite: Finding Ways to Break the Seal.” She is The Ethics Coach columnist for Entrepreneur Magazine.