Bottom-line badness

Mar 02 2005 by Max McKeown Print This Article

It's easy enough to put figures on the degree of damage delivered by our death dealers. British American Tobacco's 86,000 people work very hard to sell 34.3 billion pounds worth of fags, death-sticks, and coffin nails.

This means that they are responsible for 14.6 per cent of the 4 million preventable deaths a year caused by puffing tobacco. That's 584,000 deaths every 365 days or 6.7 deaths per BAT employee.

Not bad going at all. If a member of the Tobacco Team stays in post for 5 years he, or she, has already killed more people than the 10-30 average for serial killers.

Of course I am aware that if this particular set of 86,000 people did not market the weed then another 86,000 people might takeover cancer distribution responsibilities.

If a member of the Tobacco Team stays in post for 5 years he, or she, has already killed more people than the 10-30 average for serial killers

After all there are at least another half a million individuals working in the industry. All of whom share other characteristics with the description given by Chicago Psychiatrist Helen L Morrison of other obsessive killers. She says that they, "show no remorse for their actions, deny responsibility for their crimes, but rarely suffer from severe mental illness."

Think on that when you read that BAT Chairman, natural born killer, Jan du Plessis said 2004, "had been a good year for the group."

Lest you should judge me unbalanced in my assessment, an alternative, more supportive position can be taken. That, put simply, the duties of the company are to maximise returns to the shareholder irrespective of the morality of the actions required so to do. Or, also simplistically, that survival of individual humans is not about being Good Samaritans but, instead, being alive long after everyone else is dead.

Some Darwinists might even argue that the stupid are being removed from the gene pool by dying early except of course that most smokers breed before they are buried.

The legal continuation of the tobacco industry is one thing. The uncritical reviews of its "stellar performance" in increasing profits by 74 per cent are quite another.

The FT is full of praise for the current group chief executive saying that, "Paul Adams is everything you would want or expect in a tobacco group chief executive" pausing only once in a toadying piece to mention that the industry is "much castigated".

Nut in 66 articles about the surge in profits that I scanned, not one questioned whether this was an essentially good or bad thing.

Which leads onto the bigger question of whether doing the "right thing" has any place in business? Should it? Could it? Are our businesses meant to simply make money by doing whatever they please as long as they can find customers and until governments catch them doing something that is both illegal and provable?

As if to provide us with a non cancerous example, Mitsubishi has just announced a fall in sales of 39.5 per cent due essentially to ongoing consumer distrust owing to it not being able to do a very good job at hiding its attempts to cover up its part in fatal car crashes.

It appears that the market is upset not because managers were dishonest but because they were inept. It's the kind of logic that would praise the 80 per cent of burglars who avoid capture and demand the death penalty for the 20 per cent who lacked the integrated strategy required to outwit baton wielding regulators in blue.

Isn't it possible for us to be joined up long enough to try to build in moral or ethical or good behaviour into the expected behaviours of all employees and especially managers who set the tone for the rest of the organisation?

So why do so few leading business schools include these questions as part of compulsory subjects? Accounting, Operations, Organisational Behaviour, Modelling, & Marketing all get a mention but nothing that insists upon the role of the modern businessman as citizen first, money maker second.

"Where can executive learn ethics?" was a question posed three years ago by Business Week - and before that for decades after each major scandal - and more particularly after every major loss to shareholders. Scandal is measured in dollars lost from share price not in sins committed.

Business Week has little time for what it describes as the, "not-so-novel idea upon which strong ethics rests", that, "ultimately, it has to be about right and wrong," or that "sometimes moral integrity costs" in terms of a missed sale or a lost promotion".

But it also raises what it views as a much more important idea when it asks: "What B-schools apparently aren't teaching very well is that lack of integrity costs, too. Plenty of shareholders have learned that this year. The question remains: Will MBAs?"

So why should any business leader, whether at Mitsubishi or BAT or elsewhere, do the right thing when doing it for it's own sake is not enough incentive?

Perhaps because the evidence points to ethical companies having 85 per cent greater returns to shareholders (I know it's so unbelievable that it won't be believed!)

Maybe they will be convinced that cultures that support the easy path become lazy and eventually fail, Or it could be that they will worry about doing jail time even though they know the chances of being caught (and convicted) are slim and that they, like Enron's merry board, will serve easy time and return to their riches.

more articles

About The Author

Max McKeown
Max McKeown

Max McKeown works as a strategic adviser for four of the five most admired companies in the world. He is a well-known speaker on subjects including innovation and competitive advantage. His latest book, #NOW: The Surprising Truth About the Power of Now, was published in July 2016.