A few years ago, then-US Presidential candidate Mitt Romney glibly told a man in his audience that “Corporations are people, too.” (If I recall correctly, he even referred to the questioner as “my friend” - which only makes it worse.)
So, since the law (at least in the United States) says that corporations have the same rights as individuals, I think it’s past time that corporations also accept the same responsibilities as individuals are expected to have in support of building and maintaining society.
Specifically, just as individuals who harm others are held accountable by the law, so should corporations have to pay their debt to society.
Even more, just as most people - personally and professionally - try to avoid harming others, even if just to maintain civility, so should corporations take on that same commitment to a civil society.
All of which points to the leaders of those corporations.
And that brings me to Arconic and Grenfell Tower.
If you’re not familiar with Grenfell Tower, it’s the 24-story building in central London that went up in flames, killing at least 79 people, as a result of the exterior cladding that acted like a chimney. That cladding caused the fire to move so far, so fast and so hot that neither the residents inside nor the over 200 firefighters outside had a chance to save or be saved.
So, who’s Arconic? It’s the company that makes the cladding. And even though they’ve announced that they’re no longer going to sell that cladding for use in high-rise towers, I have to wonder:
Why would the leaders of a company that has documented the dangers of the product it’s producing - and which has been banned in countries around the world…including in the majority of the United States - continue to produce and sell that product? At all?
Why is it that the company’s decision-making leaders believe, think or feel that it’s somehow right to produce and sell something that they know already have and will continue to cause harm?
As you read the horrifyingly descriptive news coverage of the fire and its aftermath, you get lots of run-around explanations from Arconic (that clearly come from some combination of marketing, legal and a crisis management PR firm) that deftly (or so they hope) avoid taking responsibility…even as they express their condolences to those who have lost their homes. Or their loved ones.
It’s simply not enough. Profits are fine. In fact, they’re great. But at what cost?
And, most importantly, when, as an organization’s leader, you know that you’re putting people or society in harm’s way, what does that say about you? Or the organization you’re leading?
Organizations of all sizes play a previously unimagined role in society today. That means that their leaders, under the guise of leading their enterprises, are also leading society.
Whether you’re the local dry cleaner using harmful chemicals because they’re cheaper than the ‘good stuff’ or you’re the CEO of Arconic, you’re left with the same question:
Do you want your legacy to be known as the person who led an organization that caused harm…for money?
Put in that context, probably not. Hopefully not. No matter how high the profits.