Teaching good business

23 February 2015, Manila Standard Today

Is there such a thing as good business? How relevant is business to promoting human development and fighting poverty? Business faculty from Catholic schools in more than 20 countries are converging in Manila to share their answers to these and other critical questions. The 9th International Conference on Catholic Social Thought and Business Education will happen on Feb. 26 to 28, with each day being held at De La Salle University, Ateneo de Manila University and the Gawad Kalinga Enchanted Farm, respectively.

Greater meaning in life

The conference is timely, coming in the heels of the visit of Pope Francis to Manila. The Pope has consistently challenged business to be more relevant to the development – and not the exploitation -- of people. His message to the attendees of the 2014 World Economic Forum meeting in Davos was: “What is needed … is a renewed, profound and broadened sense of responsibility on the part of all. Business is—in fact—a vocation, and a noble vocation, provided that those engaged in it see themselves challenged by a greater meaning in life.”

What could go into “greater meaning in life” for a business leader? Helping address the world’s growing economic inequality should certainly be in there. Oxfam International, the anti-poverty charity, recently reported that the number of billionaires in the world has doubled since 2009. Unfortunately, the world’s richest 85 people now own as much as half of the world’s population or about 3.5 billion people. The inequality situation has grown much worse since 2010 when Oxfam reported a higher number -- 388 people – owning as much as half of humankind. Oxfam predicts that if current trends continue until 2016, the richest 1 percent will own more than 50 percent of the world’s wealth.

Business leaders can also be a force against corruption. Sadly, public opinion about this has been negatively affected by a series of scandals in the last several months. Recent congressional investigations have thrown a critical light on a number of actual and alleged practices of certain businesses, including giving a large discount for a vehicle purchased by the head of the Philippine National Police, claiming ownership for a large property even without legal title, and using complicated transactions to evade taxes.

Vocation of the business leader

We can’t blame impressionable business students if what they pick up from these developments is that business is about (1) getting as much for yourself as you can even if it harms others, and (2) finding more creative ways to use undue influence on or otherwise cheat government. What are business teachers to do, faced by these powerful messages from the “real world”? Participants in this week’s conference are rallying around the counter-cultural message from the Catholic Church. The Vatican’s Pontifical Council for Justice and Peace has released a document entitled “The Vocation of the Business Leader” which summarizes the guiding principles of the business leader who wants to play a positive role in society. The principles are summarized neatly in three easily-remembered phrases: Good goods, good work and good wealth.

Good goods

The “Good goods” principle challenges business to offer only products and services that are truly beneficial to people and accessible to the poor. Improving products and services so that they are good for people takes commitment and creativity. YouTube, the popular video-streaming Internet company, supports owner company Google in its mission to “organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful”. Informative and educational YouTube content has been a boon to many people, irrespective of social class.

Unfortunately, children using YouTube are exposed to questionable violent or sexual content. This has been a challenge to Google (which owns YouTube) and whose mantra is “Do not be evil.” As a response, Google is releasing a child-friendly app for Android tablets this week. The app will let parents screen content which can harm their children. Parents can also limit the amount of time their children can view YouTube videos.

Given the increase in consumption of alcoholic drinks among young Filipinos today, and with binge drinking and drunkenness becoming common even among young college girls, can beer companies apply the “Good product” principle to find ways to moderate drinking among the young? Parents will be so thankful.

Good work and good wealth

The “Good work” principle calls on business leaders to treat their workers in humane and empowering ways – treating them as collaborators in delivering business value and not just cost elements and “pairs of hands”. “Good wealth”, on the other hand, calls on businesses to share the fruits of the business with its stakeholders. Pandayan Bookshop, a chain of bookstores led by Gerardo Cabochan Jr., ensures the engagement of all its employees through its humanistic practices. A plaque at the entrance of Pandayan Bookshop’s distribution center lists the names of all the members of the workforce. Monthly bonuses and a profit-sharing scheme help employees meet their financial goals. Employees are paid a maximum of 30 days if they need to take care of a child in the hospital and are paid in full if they attend their children’s family day in school. Cabochan says that “because of the sense of ownership in general, the workforce pulls together. I would say that at least 80 percent of the good ideas circulating in all our stores come from the workforce, not from top management.”

Many companies, in an effort to save on personnel cost and to exact compliance from employees, are relying more and more on contractual workers even for essential functions for the business. Can these companies consider giving more “Good work” to their employees and sharing “Good wealth” by learning from the practices of Pandayan Bookshop? Combined with a good business strategy, there is a good chance that the increased engagement of employees will translate nicely to better financial results as for the business as well.

The practice of good business by current business leaders and the teaching of the three principles to business students give us hope that worsening inequalities can be reversed and rampant business malpractices can be transformed to practices worthy of the public’s highest trust.

Dr. Benito Teehankee is an associate professor at De La Salle University’s Management and Organization Department and CSR Chair of the Management Association of the Philippines. His email address is benito.teehankee@dlsu.edu.ph.