Has business become a bad word?

It's becoming more and more common for business-people to feel defensive just because they're in business, Dianne Buckner writes.
Dianne Buckner
It seems to me that anything and anyone related to business these days is somehow considered evil.

A friend of mine was telling me recently that he's participating in a career day at his young daughter's school. You know the type of event, they happen everywhere: parents are invited to come in to talk about their jobs, to help educate the young'uns about the world of work. My friend is a marketer — after years with large firms he's just joined a small start-up. 

"I'm thinking hard about what to say," he explained. "So far I've come up with, 'I help companies sell stuff.' It doesn't make me feel too bad."

I laughed, of course, at his apologetic second sentence. Those five words capture so much: That maybe nowadays it should feel bad to help business. 

Rampant consumerism is wrong. Anyone who puts their energies into a profit-making enterprise is in league with the devil — at least that's the impression one can get from so much of the commentary that goes on.

No surprise that the Academy Award for best documentary went to Inside Job. It's the story of how the greed-inspired practices of Wall Street  precipitated the global financial melt-down. "Three years after a horrific financial crisis that was caused by a massive fraud, not a single financial executive has gone to jail and that is wrong," said the film-maker, as he clutched his Oscar. The Hollywood crowd burst into applause.

And consider the fact that the next federal budget (set to be announced March 22nd) is expected to trigger an election. A key issue? Tax cuts for corporations. Clearly, opposition parties believe the public will respond well to those who take a stance against anything that might be good for business.

Reality check

Of course I understand where these negative attitudes about business-people come from — it's the old "one bad apple spoils the whole bunch" phenomenon, or in this case, several bad apples have spoiled the bunch. Because BP polluted the Gulf of Mexico, because Nortel tried to cheap out on its pensioners, because insurance rates are rising and internet providers want to charge by the gigabyte, because there's false advertising — anyone and everyone in business is bad. That appears to be the thinking. 

But it's so easy to take shots against 'business' as a whole, ignoring the millions of honest and hard-working people who deal in the products and service we all use and wear and eat daily.  

And as my friend's comment makes clear, it's becoming more and more common for business-people to feel defensive just because they're in business. 

Yet the vast majority of Canadians are employed by private enterprise. They rely on businesses to give them employment. And I suspect most of them believe their employers are ethical. So there's clearly a disconnect.

"Even if it were the case that more wrongdoing is going on at high levels in the world of business, that doesn't mean that business in general is any less ethical than it was 20 or 50 years ago."

So says Chris MacDonald in The Business Ethics Blog. MacDonald teaches at the University of St Mary's in Halifax, and he's also a visiting scholar at the University of Toronto's Clarkson Centre for Business Ethics and Board Effectiveness. 

MacDonald has gone so far as to suggest we're in a 'golden age' of business ethics. "We live in an era in which 'Corporate Ethics Officer' is an actual job title," he says. 

Of course, he acknowledges there's still more to be done, and that yes indeed, there are examples aplenty of corporate misbehaviour, but he asks this question: "Is that because behaviour has gotten worse, or because expectations have gotten higher?"

It's true that corporations are now expected to respect the environment, be vigilant about not exaggerating their claims, consider the social impact of their activities, and treat their employees well. That's as it should be — and as it always should have been.

But human beings and their organizations and activities are constantly evolving.  We live in such a dynamic world.  Of course there have been mistakes along the way, and nd there's no question everyone has to learn from those mistakes and do better. 

I remember the first time I questioned my role as a business journalist.  I joined Venture, CBC's long-running business program (1985 to 2006) in the early 90s as a reporter. At that time, Finance Minister Paul Martin was balancing the nation's books by taking a hatchet to social services. 

One day on my way to work I heard a radio report. It was budget day, and people were reacting to the latest cuts. Groups that  supported the homeless, lobbyists for health care and education, were speaking out against the budget, saying how it would hurt a lot of people. Then the reporter interviewed someone who spoke for business. Their reaction to the budget was positive. Business people were pleased that the finance minister was behaving responsibly, and taking action to trim Canada's ballooning deficit and debt.

As I listened, I couldn't help but be struck that 'business' was for the federal measures that were going to make life harder for people. Was I in league with the bad guys?

But my experience with so many entrepreneurs and small business managers convinced me otherwise. They were simply trying to earn a living and make their way in the world, just like the artists and teachers and lobbyists on the other end of the political spectrum.

Jimi Flaherty was quoted last week saying he believes most Canadians will support his government and its corporate tax cuts, because they understand that business is the basis of our well-being as a nation. Really? Do most Canadians understand that? 

I wonder.

(Dianne Buckner has reported on entrepreneurs for two decades. She hosts Dragons' Den on CBC Television and is part of the business news team at CBC News Network.)