Character: In Business

Business characterethical, trusted, human-centered business practices.

Face it—Americans don’t have much trust in business, let alone the government. In fact, according to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer, we are in a trust crisis. A 2016 study by Stanford’s Rock Center for Corporate Governance found that the public holds CEO’s to a high standard and especially penalize breaking customer trust. Professor David Larcker at the Stanford Graduate School of Business said about the study’s findings:

“We find that the public is highly critical of—and very willing to fire—CEOs who engage in behaviors that are morally or ethically questionable, even if these actions are not illegal and, in some cases, even if they cause no obvious harm to shareholders, employees, or the public…. This reflects, in part, the public’s lingering distrust of large corporations and CEOs in general.”

Consumers are also taking action and holding companies accountable. A 2017 BBMG and GlobeScan global study found that 28 percent of consumers punished companies for their behavior, more than rewarded them at 26 percent, and that is up 9 percent since 2013.

The technology industry, in particular, is facing increased scrutiny. Thought leaders are questioning the impact of their products on our lives. For example, Franklin Foer wrote “World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech,” in which he questions the benefits provided by large technology companies when compared to the freedoms we have given up by using their products.

Sherry Turkle is less ominous in some ways in that she doesn’t view technology as all negative, yet her research over the years has cast a light on the dark side of technology and its impact on humans. Her last book, “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age,” speaks to the costs of not engaging in discussion because of technology. Read more of an interview with Turkle here >

Finally, in this NBC News article, several science and technology leaders (Ainissa Ramirez, Moshe Vardi, Wendell Wallach) are predicting and hoping that in 2018 companies will look at the broader societal impacts of technological development.

Thus, there is a growing need for character and integrity to be emphasized in business practices. From the data breaches putting public information at risk and Apple’s non-transparent decision to slow phones for battery performance to the impact that fake news on Facebook had on the American presidential election and the developments around artificial intelligence, companies need to take more responsibility and build public trust for making the right decisions.

With artificial intelligence, for example, how do we make sure that bias is not built into solutions? How do we avoid the risks that people like Elon Musk are highlighting? Some, such as in this article by Sophia Chen in Wired, are fostering the idea of AI ethicists. DeepMind, a Google-owned company, late last year thankfully launched a research group to study AI ethics.

Much more will need to be done, and it will require that companies be willing to think beyond themselves and consider the long-term impact of technologies, not just short-term sales gains.

The Economy & Industry Forecast: Help me ask the right questions when developing and deploying new technologies to ensure we are thinking holistically and consider long-term implications, ultimately doing the right thing for our business, society, and employees.


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