Passing the Smell Test: Corporate Social Responsibility and Integrity Must go Hand-In-Hand

 


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The camera follows three teens as they enter the convenience store. Cut to the inside of the store as they approach the counter. We see the store clerk, with a bemused expression, point to a “We Card" sign on the counter.

A woman's voice, assuming a serious tone, earnestly describes how Philip Morris cares about young people and has distributed over 900,000 “We Card" kits to retail stores. Various scenes follow of happy, equally earnest store employees responsibly taking steps to prevent young, average looking kids from getting their hands on Philip Morris’ flagship product.

Hmmm. Sniff.

I visited the company's web site at philipmorrisusa.com. A text box dominates their home page reading:

"Our goal is to be the most responsible, effective and respected developer, manufacturer and marketer of consumer products, especially products intended for adults. "

What is that smell? Sniff.

I click on the first link under this text box, “About Us: Mission & Values". I click through to find their statement of values. The very first value in their list reads as follows.

"We believe in operating with integrity, trust and respect, both as individuals and as a company. "

It goes on to say:

"We believe in sharing with others, unleashing the tremendous resources of our people as a force for good into the communities in which we live and work. "

Sniff.

Companies that go for the gold by claiming their “social responsibility", touting their corporate citizen credentials in order to demonstrate they are worthy of our consumer dollars, take on a significant danger. They hold themselves up to well-deserved scrutiny, a considerable risk, since we can spot a hypocrite a mile away.

While serving a greater good can reap rewards for a company, a key ingredient for successfully pulling it off is integrity. And, I don't mean the kind that makes it onto the company's web site. I'm talking about the kind that passes the “smell test".

Philip Morris wants us to believe they care about ethics and care about communities. I'm just a little bit stunned by the temerity. The tobacco industry has for decades pimped tobacco to adults and, worse, kids, knowing it was dangerous and addictive. The settlement with tobacco companies called on them to establish foundations and give big money to anti-tobacco campaigns. Now, they are using those donations as a slick PR gimmick to convince us of their responsibility. Oh, and they get a nice tax deduction, too.

Ah. It's the stench of hypocrisy.

As a parent, if Philip Morris insists on remaining in business and providing consumers with nicotine delivery devices, I suggest they drop the PR schtick and stop pretending to care about the community. But, before they do, I suggest they send the employee volunteers they are so proud of to spend a day or two at a hospice or cancer ward to care for some of their soon-to-be-former customers.

Social responsibility isn't an ad campaign. It is a way of doing business, one that accepts that a company can do great business by operating ethically and in the best interests of customers and society. But, as companies become more sophisticated in their community involvement practices and publicly claim this higher ground, it will be more and more difficult for the average person to know the difference between a truly responsible business and a fraud.

The power of socially responsible business practices comes not from public displays of empty gestures aimed at grabbing our attention and our wallets. It emerges from concerted action, aligned with authentic concern, aimed at serving people's needs in a responsible way-safe in the knowledge that doing what is right is the surest path to consumer trust and profits.

It's about integrity. If not, you run the risk of fouling the air and souring people's taste for your fare.

Just ask Philip Morris.

Copyright © 2006 Steven E. Schad.

Steve Schad helps companies and individuals tap into service as a strategy for improved performance. Jaded by the junk “teambuilding" games that flood the market, he created a one-of-a-kind team development model called Team Serve. His approach uses volunteer projects as a catalyst for creating the service ethic in a group and teaching critical teaming skills. He also helps executives and managers learn how get more from employees by leading according to a service ethic. He couples an in-depth assessment and development process with powerful volunteer experiences to provide a learning laboratory for core leadership competencies. For more information, visit the Vector Group, LLC web site at http://www.VGLearning.com . Visit Steve's blog at Service Power .

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