The Washrooms are Equipped with Smoke Detectors: Corporate Responsibility Lessons from a Frequent Flyer

In this, the third in our series of Corporate Responsibility Lessons from a Frequent Flyer, we take a look at a more serious issue of corporate accountability.  For our first post in this series, Don’t Leave Your Baggage Unattended, click here.  For our second post in this series, Locate the Nearest Exit, click here.

 

If you’re a frequent flyer like me, you’ll know that a standard feature of the onboard safety briefing is that smoking is not permitted and the washrooms are equipped with smoke detectors.

Kashif Mardani CC

Kashif Mardani (licenced by Creative Commons)

The days of smoke-filled cabins on airplanes are, thankfully, a distant memory, but the urgency of the no-smoking warning remains, reminding would-be transgressors that even in the privacy of the washroom, illicit behaviour will be detected. Corporate actors would be similarly well warned that technology and social media are increasingly the detectors and disclosers of illicit behaviour, wherever it may occur.

In my view, this is a Good Thing; sunlight, as Justice Brandeis once opined, is the best disinfectant. Moreover, the boundaries are blurring between a corporation’s accountability and an individual’s responsibility for inappropriate behaviour.

As if we needed another example of this, we can point to the recent experience of Centerplate’s now-ex-CEO, Desmond Hague.

In late August, Mr. Hague was caught on video abusing a dog in an elevator. Here’s a link to that video [warning: some viewers may find this video disturbing].

Centerplate is a food services company catering to sports and other entertainment venues. It doesn’t matter that their business has nothing to do with animal welfare. The behaviour of its CEO was so morally offensive that the company would be tarred with the same brush if it did not demonstrate its intolerance. Faced with widespread outrage on social and mainstream media, the company expressed its concern, put Mr. Hague on probation, and required him to serve 1,000 hours of community service and make a donation to establish an animal welfare foundation. That wasn’t enough, however. Despite the CEO’s contrite apology, he was forced to resign when the scandal continued to grow.

Also in early September, a far more disturbing incident was caught on video, again by an elevator surveillance camera: football star Ray Rice assaulting his then fiancée, Janay Palmer. The public release of the video led the Baltimore Ravens football club to terminate Rice’s contract, and he was suspended indefinitely from the National Football League. In the weeks since, however, there have been many questions about who knew what about the incident and when, and much criticism about the adequacy and timeliness of the actions taken by the Ravens and the NFL, particularly since both organizations knew about the incident from a previously released video.

Both of these cases highlight the need for organizations to engage employees proactively regarding behavioural expectations both within and outside the workplace, to make clear the consequences of behaviour that doesn’t meet these expectations, and to have systems in place to ensure a timely and appropriate response when incidents occur.

Although we surely cannot mandate values, it is possible – and increasingly necessary – to foster a culture of responsibility that seeks in the best case to prevent inappropriate behaviour and in the worst case to ensure swift action when inappropriate behaviour comes to light.

Where there’s smoke, there’s likely fire.  Best not to wait for the smoke alarm to go off to figure out where the fire extinguisher is…

 

For more on the stories that prompted this post:

Click here for coverage in the Globe and Mail.

Click here for coverage in the New York Daily News.

Locate the Nearest Exit: Corporate Responsibility Lessons from a Frequent Flyer

This is the second in our lighthearted series of Corporate Responsibility Lessons from a Frequent Flyer.  For our first post in this series, Don’t Leave Your Baggage Unattended, click here.

The onboard pre-flight safety demonstration is all about what to do when things go wrong.  It explains the safety features of the aircraft, and how to use them properly.  It describes how to exit the aircraft in case of emergency.  It reviews the rules established to ensure passenger safety.  And it refers to the safety information card available to each passenger.  Finally, passengers are invited to share questions or concerns with the flight attendants.  The briefing includes mandatory elements standardized by the International Civil Aviation Organization, and has changed over time to incorporate new elements shown by experience to be necessary.

In these respects, the pre-flight safety demonstration is a model for organizational crisis management.  The briefing provides a clear framework for action by the stakeholder – the passenger, in this case – in the event of an emergency.  It engages the stakeholder directly, articulating their role in crisis response.  It identifies reference material and sources of additional information, if required.  And the briefing is customized to reflect specific risks – flights over water, for instance, warrant additional safety measures – and updated to clarify new or revised procedures.

To the extent passengers are paying attention, the pre-flight safety demonstration can minimize the likelihood of injury and maximize the likelihood of survival in a real emergency.  Similarly, the chances of surviving a corporate crisis, like any other, are greatly increased when the organization understands the risks, has plans and procedures in place to enable efficient and effective action if a crisis occurs, and maintains a state of readiness – through training, exercises, and upkeep – to increase the likelihood of desirable outcomes.

Effective crisis management is an important element of corporate responsibility because it enables the organization to anticipate and better manage potential impacts of a crisis with the aim of protecting the health and safety of employees and the public, the environment, and property, including public and private property and the assets of the organization.  The better able an organization is to respond to a crisis in a timely and credible manner, consistent with its vision and values and responsive to the needs of its stakeholders, the more resilient it will be through times of trouble.

On an airplane, the nearest exit is often not the door through which you came in.  Similarly, the way out of a crisis is often not the way you arrived.  Just as the floor-mounted lighting system in an aircraft will guide you to the nearest exit, an effective crisis management plan will guide the organization through turbulence to a safe landing.

 

For fun, click below to enjoy Air New Zealand’s pre-flight safety video featuring Richard Simmons, ‘Fit to Fly’.

 

You might also like this rap safety briefing on South West Airlines.

Don’t Leave Your Baggage Unattended: Corporate Responsibility Lessons from a Frequent Flyer

As much as I try to telework to minimize our firm’s environmental footprint, there are times when I just have to travel to meet client needs.  So I fly.  A lot.  I can, like most frequent flyers, recite the safety briefing from memory.  On a recent trip, it occurred to me there are gems of wisdom in that briefing that we can apply to the world of corporate responsibility, if we look at them creatively. 

Don’t Leave Your Baggage Unattended” – You often hear this announcement in the holding room, before boarding.

iStock_000015455200_SmallMost companies, like most travelers, have baggage.  When it comes to corporate sustainability and responsibility, the kind of baggage you need to worry about is the kind that comes most frequently with extremes of organizational change, ranging from the slow, organic growth of companies that span decades or even centuries, to rapid growth through new market creation and mergers and acquisitions.  These extremes of development can lead to entrenched systems, legacy issues, and persistent misperceptions that hinder forward progress.

For example, a fast-growing small or medium-sized enterprise might be weighed down by internal financial and human resource management systems that it has outgrown.  A company newly formed out of a merger or acquisition might carry a burden of outstanding environmental liability associated with past operations.  An organization that has been in operation for decades may be encumbered by practices that have become habitual instead of adaptive and responsive to evolving needs and opportunities.

Organizational baggage like this, when left unattended, undermines morale, stifles innovation, erodes productivity and value, and creates long-term liability.  When in direct conflict with stated corporate values and policy, unattended baggage can call into question the credibility of the organization, and thus impact reputation.  In turn, it can be more difficult to attract talent and investment and earn social and regulatory licence.

Sustainability is often described as a journey.  If your organization is planning, undertaking, or has just come through a major growth phase, whether organic or through a merger or acquisition, or if it’s been a long time since the organization has done any serious introspection, it’s time to take a good look at what you’re carrying with you.

Here are some questions to consider, depending on your situation; this isn’t an exhaustive list, but it will help guide the initial conversation.

  • Are our current management systems still appropriate given the growth we have experienced?
  • Are we spending more time managing administrative and data management tasks than we used to?  Do we still have enough time for strategic activities?
  • Are our current management systems giving us the information we need to manage risks and leverage opportunities?
  • Are our current management systems giving us the information we need to communicate effectively to our key stakeholders?
  • What are the environmental, social, or other liabilities that we have inherited through our mergers and acquisitions?  Have we updated our corporate responsibility strategy to address these liabilities?
  • Have we evaluated these liabilities against our risk management criteria and adjusted our priorities accordingly?
  • Do we have a plan to make sure our corporate sustainability performance measures and targets take into account the full range of our newly acquired business activities?
  • Are our communication strategy and crisis communication measures adequate to respond to stakeholder enquiries about legacy liabilities?
  • Are we taking full advantage of the new strengths we acquired in our merger or acquisition?
  • Do we have new stakeholders that we didn’t have before as a result of our growth?  How have we integrated the needs and expectations of these new stakeholders into our corporate responsibility strategy?
  • Are we aware of how the needs of our key stakeholders, including employees, customers, investors, and others, have changed over time, and have we updated our practices to meet those needs?
  • Do our existing practices stifle or encourage innovation?
  • Do we have barriers to adopting new and emerging technologies?

Exploring these and other probing questions will help to unpack the systemic and legacy issues that arise out of extreme organizational development, and ensure you are well prepared for the ongoing sustainability journey.

There are benefits to traveling light: mobility, agility, flexibility, security, economy, efficiency.  These benefits can accrue to organizations that are mindful about their baggage.

 

Next time, I’ll share some wisdom from the onboard briefing…

The White House blip: would ethical standards be helpful?

This morning, an Associated Press Twitter account was hacked, and a false tweet reported explosions in the White House that injured Barack Obama.  There’s been no better illustration of the potential impact of social media on the economy than this:

BIjk5fACQAAy0Ir.png-large

Impact of false White House tweet on the S&P 500

In just two minutes, the Dow Jones Industrial Average dropped 145 points!

Once AP stated its account had been hacked and the White House confirmed there was no incident, markets quickly recovered.  Nevertheless, the ‘blip’ stands as a great example of how significant the influence of social media has become.

It also represents another facet of social media use in respect of which comprehensive ethical standards may be warranted.  Although ethical standards are unlikely to be followed by hackers, such standards may assist legitimate social media users to adopt responsible use policies that will protect against inappropriate responses to unconfirmed or suspect information disseminated via social media.  From the early media coverage of the Twitter hacking incident this morning, it is apparent that some traders responded in a knee-jerk manner, while others waited.

How might general ethical standards or company-specific social media policies for the financial sector be useful in such instances?  Perhaps by providing criteria to guide traders in evaluating the legitimacy of information obtained through social media, encouraging responsible communication with stakeholders (e.g., clients), and supporting decision-making in the face of the ethical dilemma of whether to intentionally gain from someone else’s mistake.

For more on the Twitter hacking story that prompted this post:

Click here for coverage in the Wall Street Journal.

Click here for coverage in the Telegraph.

Click here for coverage in the Globe and Mail.

For related reading on social media standards, here‘s a great paper on the need for an “ethical compass” for crisis mapping: it was published early last year in Global Brief.

Social Licence: a Critical Success Factor for Resource Development

PES_2011_stackedEach year since 2009, the National Bureau of Asian Research (NBR) hosts the Pacific Energy Summit, an invitation-only event that “convenes leaders from government, business, and research to explore innovative solutions to the dual challenges of rising energy demand and climate change.  By bridging the commercial, public, and nonprofit sectors, the Summit informs policy and inspires collaboration to help support sustainable economic development.”   This week, NBR is co-hosting the 4th annual Summit with the Asia Pacific Foundation of Canada in Vancouver.  The theme of the Summit this year is “Forging Trans-Pacific Cooperation for a New Energy Era,” and dialogue will focus on best practices and solutions for successfully meeting Asia’s energy needs while promoting environmental stewardship.  To inform and foster discussion, NBR commissions working papers on key topics of relevance to the Summit.  I had the privilege of being invited to co-author – with a colleague and associate of mine, Brian Yates – a paper on social licence.  Our paper examines the nature and attributes of social licence, and analyzes its growing importance as a critical success factor for resource development.

You can access the paper here.  I welcome feedback – please click on the “leave a comment” tag to the left of this post!

Sustainability? Ask Why.

Last week, I wrote about the importance of cultural integration and the need for a shared vision to guide the sustainability agenda, particularly through times of leadership change.  That made me reflect on how we get to that shared vision: we start with ‘why‘.

 

In my view, “why?” is one of the most critical questions any organization must ask itself before embarking on a sustainability journey.

Recently, I was chatting with a friend of mine and he was telling me his company had established a new sustainability committee.  When I probed a bit, he explained that the CEO had declared his desire for the company to issue a sustainability report, and the committee was struck to guide that task.  The committee, however, was struggling.

As we talked, it soon became clear there had been no internal discussion about why the company was suddenly pursuing a sustainability report, and no clear understanding about what the sustainability report was supposed to achieve.  No wonder the committee was unsure of its direction!  This is not the first time I’ve encountered a company that has kicked off a sustainability initiative with a vaguely defined outcome, and I know, if there’s no intervention, where it’s probably going: to fail.

Taking action without a fulsome consideration of the driving reasons behind the sustainability agenda can lead to serious difficulties in implementation, as well as frustration arising from unmet expectations both within and outside of the organization.

Let’s go back to the example of my friend’s company.  As we talked some more, we explored the possible reasons why the CEO might have wanted a sustainability report.  Was it because the company’s investors were asking for one?  Then the company would need to show how its sustainability attributes are contributing to the bottom line, and how it is managing environmental and other material non-financial risks.  Was it because competitors were already producing one?  In that case, the company would need to figure out how it compares and what differentiates it from others in the sector.  Or was it because reporting might help the company to track and improve performance?  Perhaps sustainability reporting isn’t the first step then.  Maybe the company should establish some internal data management systems first, set some performance objectives, and start collecting data on key aspects, and then tackle reporting next year.

As illustrated by this example, asking “why?” can uncover a range of reasons, each of which may demand a different strategy and different action to achieve the desired outcome.  In some cases, those strategies may be complementary, but in others, taking action that might be responsive to one sustainability driver may conflict with achieving the objectives of another.  Thus, if the driving reasons behind a sustainability initiative are not clearly understood at the outset, there’s a good chance the selected strategy won’t achieve the desired outcome.

Careful deliberation of why an organization is contemplating action on sustainability helps to develop and articulate a shared vision that will not only guide that action over time, but also help the organization to identify, scope, and coordinate the programs necessary to support that vision.

Is your organization beginning a sustainability initiative?  Ask why.

The Continuity of Sustainability

The Network for Business Sustainability recently articulated their “Top 10” sustainability challenges for Canadian business in 2013.  I think many readers will probably agree these challenges face businesses around the globe as well.

One challenge in particular caught my attention, in light of some of the challenges I‘ve encountered myself, working with public and private sector companies in Canada and internationally:  How can companies keep their long-term sustainability agenda on track despite leadership changes?

I have witnessed several examples of disrupted sustainability agendas, even among organizations that had done a phenomenal amount of work to advance sustainability.  In my experience, it is typically the departure of a committed CEO or Board chair that leads to gradual erosion and sidelining – sometimes intentional, sometimes inadvertent – of corporate responsibility and sustainability initiatives over time, often accompanied by a sense of frustration among team members and stakeholders.

In my view, this challenge highlights the critical need to differentiate between operational and cultural integration of sustainability. Most discussion papers and guidance pertaining to sustainability integration deal mainly with the integration of sustainability into business processes:  this is operational integration.  However, operational integration must not be mistaken for cultural integration.  Cultural integration involves the integration of sustainability into corporate vision and values, and the embodiment of those values in the behaviour of individuals within the organization. Both are critical success factors to advance a sustainability agenda over the long term, and indeed they are complementary.

Can you have cultural integration without operational integration?  Sure, but there’s a good chance the sustainability agenda will not be fully realized.  We’ve probably all seen examples of organizations populated by well-meaning individuals who share a belief in the need to be more sustainable, but whose efforts are stymied by the lack of effective integration of sustainability considerations into routine business processes.

Conversely, you can have operational integration without cultural integration, although this is usually more difficult to recognize.  In this situation too, the sustainability agenda is unlikely to be fully achieved.  Operational integration without cultural integration can happen when an organization reactively pursues a sustainability agenda – perhaps in response to stakeholder pressure or a perceived reputational risk – without taking the time to understand why, and to develop a clear, thoughtful, and shared vision.  A committed leader may also achieve a degree of operational integration through sheer strength of character, but may overlook the importance of ensuring their executive colleagues and the Board, not to mention the employees at large, share their vision.

It is where cultural integration is lagging that the sustainability agenda is most at risk of become derailed during and after a change in leadership.

Organizational vision and values are fundamentals that will guide an organization through times of change.  It is therefore worth taking the time to carefully consider the reasons for pursuing sustainability and crafting a sustainability agenda that is aligned with and supportive of the organization’s vision and values.  An organization that values sustainability leadership as part of its culture, and considers sustainability to be a core part of its strategic vision is more likely to enjoy continuity in its sustainability agenda, even through a change in leadership.

One way to enhance cultural integration is to have broad engagement with the Board, the executive/management team, and employees during development of the long-term sustainability agenda, particularly with respect to ensuring alignment of the sustainability agenda with the organization’s vision.  This increases not only understanding and buy-in across the organization, but improves operational integration as well.

The greater the degree of cultural integration, particularly among the Board and executive, the more likely it will be that commitment to sustainability will be a factor in the consideration of new leadership candidates.  This, too, will do much to assure the continuity of sustainability in the midst of change.

 

What do you think?  I invite you to share your experiences and ideas here, by clicking on the Write Comment tab, or join the discussion in the Canadian CSR and SD Practitioners Network on LinkedIn by clicking here.

Check out the Network for Business Sustainability here: http://nbs.net

Read about the Top 10 Challenges for Canadian Business in 2013 here: http://nbs.net/knowledge/top-10-sustainability-challenges-for-canadian-business-in-2013/ 

Follow the Network for Business Sustainability on Twitter: https://twitter.com/NBSnet

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