Do Corporations have a Real Commitment to Ethics?
There is a valid concern about the influence of powerful corporations on people and the Earth. The more powerful worldwide influence of the business, then the more likely that corporations neglect their social responsibilities and global sensitivities.
Companies remain intent on maximising profits, personal salaries, bonuses and career opportunities. Conferences on mindfulness, ethics and vision seem little more than exercises in public relations. These gestures seem trivial in comparison to the core aims of corporations.
Around 90 global corporations generate two thirds of greenhouse gas emissions, polluting the Earth and producing climate change with all of the nightmare consequences. The same corporations exploit the welfare and health of people, animals and the environment. They violate the Earth and its resources and show little or no regard for present or future generations. They refuse to uphold moral standards of behaviour in their determination to maximise their personal interests. We wonder whether corporations have any real commitment to ethics.
A large business often interprets ethics as upholding the laws of the nation state. Yet, we cannot even take much comfort in the moral responsibility of big business to uphold the laws of the land. Lawyers have found ways to keep technically within the law while deliberately ignoring the spirit of the legislation. Taxation loopholes demonstrate a clear example of manipulation of the law. A small team of corporate lawyers and accountants will collude to detect loopholes in taxation to avoid paying corporate taxes, regardless of the harmful impact of loss of government revenue to support the poor and the environment. From an ethical standpoint, corporate behaviour requires sensitivity and respect for communities worldwide, and the application of deep values for a sustainable way of life.
There appears to be every indication that powerful businesses remain determined to keep profit, salaries and bonuses for senior staff to the foreground. The fetish for power and profit reveals a dark insensitivity from corporate leaders and those employees enslaved to the aims and objectives of the corporation.
Ethics belongs to a whole range of rules and regulations used to govern the behaviour of the corporation. Such legislation invites resistance from corporations because the body of the corporation lacks the necessary love and appreciation for a genuinely considerate way of conducting business. A company can always find ways to modify rules of behaviour to suit its own economic advantage, regardless of the cost to its own workers worldwide.
Campaigns to force companies to change their harmful and destructive behaviour flounder because of the strength of resistance of the bosses to change. The psychological dynamic of the bosses plays a determinant role in the way they run a corporation. We can compare modern day CEOs who exercise power over their little corporate kingdoms to the kings/dictators of ancient India. The Buddha observed that if the King failed in his duty to observe ethics and wise governance, it would lead to disaster for all his subjects. The Buddha said “When the King is unrighteous, the ministers also become so, and so do people in the cities and countryside become unrighteous. The seasons proceed off course. The winds blow off course and at random. Sufficient rain will not fall. The crops ripen irregularly. People become ugly, weak and sick.” (A. ii 74-5).
It needs to be said that we, the consumers, get the corporate masters we deserve. The same principle applies with our mediocre political masters. They reflect us, the voters. The Buddha emphasised the consequences of abuse of power from the top down but we also have to be mindful of our responsibilities for permitting such abuse.
Just as kings/dictators of 2600 years ago, CEOs today do have a wide variety of issues to address to support millions of customers to live an ethical and righteous way of life. As the Chinese proverb states: “The rotting fish starts at the head.” Some of the areas that CEO’s, boards of directors and shareholders might need to investigate include:
Addictive substances in drink and food
Consumption of oil, minerals and rainforests
Construct of so-called personal and private property so society consists of individuals to target
Corporate cartels to keep the price of goods high
Destruction of habitat
Experiments on humans
Health and safety issues
Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) such as used by pharmaceutical companies to prevent other companies making the medicine cheaper and available for more sick people
Lies, deception, cheating, manipulation, exploitation
Marketing of harmful products such as tobacco, alcohol, weapons and junk food
Massive wage differential between the highest paid and the lowest paid
Outsourcing to secure the cheapest labour possible
Overpriced goods for the benefit of bosses and shareholders
Powerful influence over democracy and governments/opposition
Suppression of information
Surveillance of citizens
Swallowing up of smaller companies
Targeting of children
Violent video games
Wages, hours of work,
Widespread use of sex to sell products
To take one example of harmful action from the above list. Millions work as forced labour under daily mental or physical threats or both. Employers abuse workers, dehumanse them and treat them as a commodity. Often referred to as modern slaves, workers have tight constrictions imposed them in the workplace with immense pressure to maximise production to keep their jobs and satisfy the demands of the corporation.
The Noble Eightfold Path of the Buddha can serve as a guideline for the ethical behaviour of a company/business/corporation since every link supports every other link to ensure the integration of ethics, mindfulness and wisdom. Every link has an ethical component to it. The application of Right Understanding, Right Intention, Right Speech, Right Action, Right Livelihood, Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Meditation ensures the health of the company based on a depth of enquiry leading to wisdom and compassion. In the USA and other nations, the state treats a corporation legally as a person such as in the right possess to property and pay taxes. This means that the application of ethics applies to the corporation, as a person, as much as to the CEOs, directors and employees.
The basis for personal behaviour of the corporation requires inner development, reflection and a meaningful education in ethics from the first grade of school to the end of university studies. Desire, obsession with competition and blind pursuit of profit obstructs the willingness to sit down and address every link in Noble Path so that everybody, from CEO’s to the lowly paid, is mindful of the various shortcomings of the company. The Buddha offered a Path of transformation so business leaders and employees realise they have wider responsibilities than aiming for and maintaining massive profit margins.
The influential American economist, Milton Friedman (1912–2006), a strong supporter of corporate capitalism, claimed corporate executives have the responsibility to “make as much money as possible while conforming to the basic rules of the society.” This well-known statement continues to influence corporate thinking, as if a corporation had an enclosed self existence with minimal regard for the local and global consequences of their actions.
We might think that businesses would benefit if they ensured deep moral convictions to inspire trust and loyalty from customers. There seems to be little evidence to show any such concerns from corporations except for marketing purposes. It would appear that corporations only appear motivated to get away with what they can. They worship at the altar of profit. Major corporations continue to accumulate vast profits, running into billions of $$$ through tax avoidance and exploitation of workers and habitats. Although a worldwide phenomenon, US corporations have a worldwide reputation for such unethical practices. There is no willingness from these corporations to return these vast sums of unpaid taxes and profits from overpriced goods to the people, via governments, to redistribute the wealth to those in need.
The Institute of Business Ethics in the UK believes that an organisation cannot be genuinely “responsible without an embedded and inherent culture that is based on ethical values such as trust, openness, respect and integrity.” These are fine statements which would require a radical change in perception, values and attitudes in the world of big business. There is no sign of such an embedded culture in our corporations. A small modification in corporate behaviour only occurs through an intensity of concerted and continuous public pressure. Many, many corporations are no longer fit for purpose. They are too powerful. They cause too much harm and suffering. They need to be broken up.
Teachings from the East enter the marketplace
Drawing on teachings from India and the Far East, the practical philosophies of the Buddhist, Taoist and Yoga traditions have entered into the market place but at a heavy cost: namely major changes in the DNA of these ancient teachings. Corporations select suitable aspects of these teachings that do not threaten the body politic of the business. There is a resistance to the broad expanse of ethics including an enquiry into policies, sustainable living, modesty of lifestyle, generosity and compassion for others. Authentic teaching from the East places much emphasis on such an approach.
Businesses have come to believe that selective /psychology/mindfulness courses can fill the void in the lives of their stressed office workers. This brand of ethics circumvents the practices for radical change in the set-up and structures of a corporation. The corporate world endorses practices that offer the feel good factor. Significant change in governments, businesses and society starts to take place when people experience strongly the ‘not feel good’ factor about an important issue. Then the people in power have to sit up and take notice or face a rebellion on their hands when citizens and employees start to express their concerns and pursue a different agenda.
Regardless of income, many office workers have become tired of the tyranny of the constant striving to achieve goals and targets set by their bosses. Company psychologists have long since realised that if management and office workers enjoy together an environment with a reduction of personal stress, then inner resistance and office conflicts will reduce. Staff will have more energy available to concentrate on corporations objectives.
Workshops on the inner life enable the staff to get in touch with their ‘spiritual side’ through attending company sponsored courses and workshops, with the emphasis on the self of the individual, rather than the self of the company. The privatised self in the office ensures reduction of criticism of employers, since workshop leaders will point out that finding fault with the corporation shows a reactive and judgemental mind. Employees then think: “My criticism of the corporation is my negative mind. It is all my unresolved stuff.” Such modes of thought and speech confirm the privatisation of the self in the office.
The language of psychology and mindfulness then functions as a means of suppression of freedom of speech, of Orwellian style thought control. The staff fears to speak up especially if they practise being in the here and now without sounding judgemental. Self-mastery over thought and speech easily ends up contracting the inner life to a pleasing, submissive state of being rather than freeing up the inner life to have the willingness to question authority. The current approach suits the business agenda since those who engage in such activities show little or no inspiration to question the ethics, value and policies of their employers. Employers only want to reduce stress so that staff relax and enjoy themselves without so much reliance on alcohol and drugs, both recreational and prescribed. It is the equivalent of dancing on the Titanic with a huge iceberg penetrating the ship.
Limbs of Awakening
The Buddha made reference regularly to the seven limbs of awakening:
Dharma enquiry/reflection/investigation/introspection, inner and outer
All seven limbs in the body of the teachings and practices (the Dharma) support each other. There is a noticeable absence of enquiry/reflection/investigation/introspection in the business world yet corporations approve of the other six limbs!
Psychology/mindfulness teachers find themselves welcomed into the corporate world providing that they exclude the second limb of enquiry into the body politic of the corporation. Corporate leaders can subsume the other six limbs to increase corporate goals and simultaneously reduce stress. This has little to do with the goal of an enlightened way of living but actually confirms an unenlightened approach to the end of stress and suffering.
There is a dark underworld in far too many powerful businesses that remains excluded from comprehensive mindfulness and enquiry. Some of these corporations have hired private intelligence firms and partnered with government intelligence agencies to spy on non-profit organisations, groups and activists. Corporations will send an observer to attend company workshops and report to the bosses whether the facilitator engages with staff in enquiry in any areas of questionable corporate practice. Facilitators, who dare to mention business ethics, will generally find the corporation politely declines to make further invitations to the facilitator to lead workshops.
The Centre for Corporate Policy (CCP) in Washington, DC, says corporations spy particularly on environmental activists, though this is not an exclusive focus. This corporate abuse of power undermines democracy and the important work of non-profit organisations. Activists and whistle blowers campaign for social and environmental justice, as well as trying to hold corporations accountable for violent and corrupt practices.
If an office member had an authentic awakening, then that company would probably hear a free spirited voice engaging with staff and bosses in an enquiry and investigation into such areas as ethics, karma, ego, greed, competition, control, dependent arising, pollution, generosity, the goals of an enlightened business community and truth. The potential for an enlightened business community is there but, without such motivation to question, nothing can develop. It is no wonder that insightful Buddhists have emphasised for 2600 years the importance of motivation and the freedom to enquire. With few exceptions, teachers/facilitators working in corporations seem to lack the motivation to address all seven limbs of awakening.
Yet, facilitators offer genuine benefits to officer workers with much evidence, based on people’s experiences, to confirm significant levels of stress reduction. These benefits can contribute to a certain level of peace and harmony in and out of the office. But the benefits do not go deep enough. Some of the benefits from psychology/mindfulness workshops for staff include:
A calm abiding reducing reaction and angry outbursts
A greater capacity to negotiate decisions
A relaxed atmosphere
A willingness to be vulnerable
A willingness to listen
Application of exercises, such as mindfully breathing in and out to relax
Development of new friendships and empathy for the difficulties of others
Less gossip, less backbiting, less distortion of statements
More energy and creativity
Mindfulness of speech, including tone, attitude and content
One minute of silent meditation at the beginning and end of a meeting
Reduction in caffeine, mindfulness of diet with much less sugar, salt and fat
Reduction in levels of control and its shadow of fear
Reduction of stress
Depth of Enquiry
We have to endure reading or listening to absurd claims and a huge amount of hype from certain leaders in the world of mind/body and spirit. To take one example of naivety: in the closing sentence of his introduction of Practicing the Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle, wrote: “It is inner stillness that will save and transform the world.”
How does inner stillness resolve differences in perceptions, views and vision of varying groups of people? Discussion, listening, inquiry, love and motivation serve as some of the basics for resolution. Human beings resolve their differences and misunderstanding through negotiation. Surely Eckhart Tolle does not imagine that two people, a team of facilitators, a group engaged in negotiation, diplomats or presidents/prime ministers of nation states or corporate leaders and environmentalists, simply sit in stillness as an answer to disputes, conflicts, wars and climate change. Does he imagine they will all agree if every speaks from stillness? How will that guarantee wise action when thoughtful people still have different perceptions of the way forward?
Sadly, these so called enlightened teachers and their methodologies have failed to engage in a collective investigation into any exploitation of big business of people and environment, let alone transform the consciousness of the boards of directors. There appears to be no evidence to show any depth of enquiry leading to real transformation of any big business. For a start, the enquiry would have to address:
Redistribution of income
Safeguarding of the Earth for present and future generations
Workers’ rights to address salaries, working hours, health, safety and holidays and treatment in the workplace.
Without enquiry, we cannot expect real steps to be taken for the resolution of suffering brought about by corporate greed, violence upon people, animals and the earth and the delusion inherent in ambitious businesses. There are a small but growing number of mindfulness teachers who take risks to bring mindfulness to the work environment. At times, these teachers have to face rejection. They are the exceptions to a submissive, cap in hand, mentality. One mindfulness teacher in Europe wrote to me:
“The two bosses asked me to work for them in corporate training as a mindfulness teacher. After they showed me their concepts, I started to ask quite a lot of questions. They just wanted to sell ‘mindfulness’ as a new inspiration to their business clients.
“I got them to reflect on their intentions and I could see how they started to feel affected by my questions. I asked them if they really want to support the very sick system (especially in large companies) any longer.
“Mindfulness can come along only with roots in ethics and values for wholesome intention. I said I can teach these topics, but only if the whole training concept will address inquiry.
“These two guys became more and more silent. Somehow I had the feeling you have been just sitting next to me. It was a bit like a dharma talk. I left the meeting with a satisfied sense. I am sure, something touched them and it will make a difference in the future.”
The two bosses did not get back in touch with the mindfulness teacher. In my reply to her, I wrote: “Don’t put yourself out of a work opportunity by being too direct, too early. You can explore ethics (sometimes the word ‘values’ sounds easier on the corporate ear) in your workshops.”
A US teacher of mindfulness stated in an article in her eNews: “I feel strongly that Dharma teachers must not distort the path by pandering to the fickle desires of the marketplace, or settle for the fragments of mental development that can be measured by researchers.”
A mindfulness teacher in Germany wrote to me: “Mindfulness is particularly requested and used in the business sector as an efficiency-enhancing tool. Mindfulness for me is no module for performance enhancement in the rat race. Mindfulness is part of a cultural change in a company. I would like to make my work available for companies who wish to promote the development of the individual and society.”
It is these voices that matter. They express the voice for real charge. Such facilitators show a willingness to address the very thorny issue of ethics, values and responsibility. These voices contribute to an empowerment of employers and employees to examine every area of business life in mindful and sensitive ways.
Corporate Consumerism and Buddha Dharma
Corporations or spiritual coaches will invite respected Tibetan lamas, Thai Ajahns, Zen Masters, Taoist adepts, Indian gurus and charismatic Western teachers of Eastern teachings to visit corporations head offices to add a little mystique to the company and their products. The market consultants can then sell a company or product as having an exotic image. We find Buddha images in the offices of corporations with unethical business practices. The Dharma offers a different world view from corporate/consumer capitalism.
Apolitical, Party Political Social Justice
Being in the Now Enquiry into Causes And Conditions
Hierarchy Wisdom and Compassion
Individuality Collective Responsibility
Profit Sharing of Benefits
Self-Interest People, Animals, Environment
Privatisation of self Reflection/Enquiry/Action Inner and Outer
Status Seeing the Emptiness of Ego
Stress Reduction Stress Destruction
Success An Awakened Life
Self-Compassion Compassion without limits.
Currently, the exploration of ethics in business looks like the equivalent of a small branch in the great tree of transformation. The corporation often appears like a helpless baby who has not even learnt to crawl, let alone stand up and walk the Path of Awakening. Like babies in a pram, they clutch at attractive things in the material world regardless of the cost. If they could find some inner space and depth, they might release a passionate interest in an expansive vision. The release of such passion would encourage within and without the exploration of:
Nature of Desire
Emptiness of I, Me and Mine,
Enquiry into Our Relationship With People, Animals or Environment
Right Action and Results
Love and Liberation
Working with Stress
Mindfulness courses provide an outstanding service to people suffering with physical pain, stress and despair. There is widespread appreciation in the medical profession for the way the daily disciplines of the application of mindfulness to the mind/body contribute to inner peace and clarity. These practices truly work. MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction) trainers and their clients can offer substantial evidence of the benefits of mindfulness with regard to improvement in health and increase in peace of mind. MBSR courses have changed the attitude and outlook of people’s lives.
It is a different story in terms of mindfulness in the business world. The reduction of stress in the office certainly has much merit but there is no parallel evidence to show that mindfulness courses have changed the attitude and outlook of a single corporation. These business workshops offer no challenge whatsoever to the impact of corporate control upon the people and the Earth. Corporate/consumer ideology threatens all sentient beings.
Activists, campaigners, protestors, critiques and polemics continue to offer the strongest voices for change in the corporate empire. Thoughtful people apply their skills out of passion and conviction to support life on Earth and transform the culture of corporate consumerism. They put an immense amount of time, energy and personal resources to team together to put real pressure on governments and corporations to change their behaviour.
Workshop leaders working with business men and woman also need to develop the inner empowerment to inquire deeply into corporate values. Sadly, some mindfulness leaders get caught up in triumphalism and personal hubris around their courses, as if these courses are transforming capitalism. They have fallen into the same trap as businesses of converting their programmes into a marketable commodity.
The First Question to Address Ethics
Mindfulness teachers have a real contribution to make for the welfare of people and the Earth but it will require confidence, skilful means and conviction to initiate changes. We cannot claim that ethics work implicitly in a corporate workshop rather than in an explicit way. Ethics belongs to the spoken word not to the unspoken, to the explicit, not in assumptions that go with the implicit.
Enquiry can begin with a simple explicit question. “Are there any actions in this corporation that causes harm or the outcome is harmful? Once the facilitator raises such a question, then ethics and mindfulness/psychology have a relationship.
This principle does not apply to people seeking support from mindfulness programmes in such places as clinics and hospitals to deal with their depression, anxiety and physical pain. I cannot express enough appreciation for mindfulness teachers giving incredible support and offering practical tools to reduce patients and clients level of stress. I know some of these mindfulness teachers who are truly dedicated to public service. I regard some of them as modern day bodhisattvas. We have to make a very clear distinction between such important developments in the West for application of mindfulness and the neutered forms of mindfulness offered in far too many large corporations.
Entrenched in a conservative view, workshops for business offer a safe, non-challenging approach rather than serve as a spearhead for change. These workshops and conferences on inner change function as a useful appendix to corporate strategies for self-promotion. Corporations need to sit up and take notice of the Buddha’s noble eightfold path and his encouragement to question authority and investigate harmful belief systems. Mindfulness/psychology functions like a trendy product that corporations have hooked onto, enabling them to continue unfettered consumption with a mindful, happy public face. Workshop leaders need to ask themselves if they have been hijacked for corporate ends.
The skilful use of language enables a transmission of a wide body of teachings without over simplification. There is the danger of offering a narrow teaching when facilitators repeat , ad nausea, the importance of being in the here and now, as if nothing else mattered. There is even a widespread belief that the Buddha primarily taught being in the now as the path and goal of practice. It is far from the truth. The Buddha never gave teachings to be “here and now” a very loose translation from the Pali of ditthe dhamme. Ditthe means view and dhamme refers to Dharma, namely everything we view. Ditthe does not mean here and dhamme does not mean now. The Buddha told people to view what arises and resolve the suffering with what arises.
The growing belief in scientific standpoints on reality, the tensions between people of faith and varying dogma on matters of faith have marginalised religious faith from business. Social issues, such as patriarchal standpoints, homophobia, corruption, contraception, and divorce have also contributed to a mass exodus of religious believers. Far too many former believers, as well as agnostics and atheists, have walked into the welcoming arms of the religion of corporate/consumerism. Born again Homo Shoppiens, they live out their primal instincts of the hunter-gatherer in the secular churches called shopping malls, supermarkets and online.
Yet, the need for something other than crass consumerism and the dryness of scientific measurement remains. Workshops may address issues of office life to reduce some of the stress but real change comes through going deep to address the collective psychological structures and policies trapped in desire. This approach shows an ethical responsibility to develop love, transformation and transcendence.
Every person has the task to search for meaning and connection and not live as a wage slave. There is a moral imperative to investigate life. The factory and the office provide a supportive environment for those with questioning minds. We need genuine networks of mindful people working together with equal emphasis on inner and outer change.
MAY ALL BEING ENQUIRE INTO ETHICS
MAY ALL BEINGS QUESTION AUTHORITY
MAY ALL BEINGS LIVE WITH WISDOM