Corporate Cultural Change - Can Big Business be a Force for Good? What about People Power?

Corporate Cultural Change – Can Big Business be a Force for Good? What about People Power?

Can business behemoths end bigoted prejudice in conservative cultures? Can this assist people power movements, or is corporate collaboration selling out?

We all like to blame big business and banks especially for the financial crisis and resulting austerity, not to mention bonus culture and tax avoidance, but can they be a force for good too? Are they big enough to effect change and shift cultures in otherwise more conservative or religious societies that may discriminate against LGBTI+ people or women, not only in employment, but in life? By being openly supportive of LGBTI+ and other minority employees, creating safe spaces for them at work, helping stem existing employment prejudices, can change happen?

Goldman Sachs in Singapore is doing just that. In a public student recruitment drive it has positively targeted LGBT students, inviting them to dinner to discuss issues such as being ‘out’ at work in the local culture.

Goldman Sachs has a strong track record on diversity with positive employee networks such as their Disability Interest Forum, Women’s Network, and LGBT Network.

Boycott Barclays Don't Bank on Apartheid NUS Poster
Boycott Barclays – Don’t Bank on Apartheid, NUS Poster

Alongside Goldman Sachs are similar stances by JP Morgan, Google, Barclays and BP. Barclays Bank were not my favourite bank in 1970s/80s student politics with their pro-Apartheid trading, the University Union I was then at, UCL, refused to take Barclays payment cards in protest. In 1977 after UN embargoes on South Africa, Barclays pledged support for Botha’s racist regime. Yet now, here in Norwich, Barclays boasts several gay bank managers and proudly marches with Norwich LGBT Pride. The University of London Union, the biggest in Europe with 120,000 members now acts on issues such as Palestine.

We acknowledge people power, indeed we have the power to change bad corporate practice, worker exploitation, tax avoidance, for example by boycotting their products, be they Starbucks, Vodafone, Amazon, Apple etc, but do we? UK Uncut, the Occupy movement, showed the power we have as consumers – if we follow through. To paraphrase Plato’s “The price of apathy toward public affairs is to be ruled by evil men” our hypocritical inaction as consumers going for cheap over ethical, image over substance, is to be ruled over by Tescos and High Street coffee shop clones.

Capitalism is not inherently evil for it carries with it the power of its own demise or change. Consumer choice, people power, stockholder revolts, pay package rejection, the freedom to form unions. When the banks failed us in 2008-9 we failed ourselves by rescuing them, indeed it was a so-called Socialist, well ‘new’ Labour government that here in the UK aided their rescue. Unbridled free market capitalism would have effected change by allowing them to fail and something new and better form and take their place. But we, and I include myself here, are all hypocrites, still selecting the cheapest deal, not investigating their ethics and practices. When we buy from Amazon we destroy smaller, local businesses, we lose our bookshops. It is evolution, but of business, and as consumers we are partly responsible.

So can corporations be beneficial too? Certainly, with all their power they have some degree of moral responsibility and diversity in the workplace is an economic benefit, aiding creativity and bringing alternative perspectives, rethinking outside the box.

Pink Dot 2009-2014 Freedom to Love Singapore
Pink Dot 2009-2014 Freedom to Love celebrations, Singapore

Goldman Sachs’ positive employment policy in Singapore and support of the emerging LGBTI rights movements there such as Pink Dot are a powerful force for freedom. Technically, homosexuality is still illegal in Singapore but Pink Dot and its inclusive promotion of “freedom to love, regardless of sexual orientation” has seen its inaugural gathering in 2009 grow tenfold in just 4 years, with the next Pink Dot, now jokingly called the Pink Whale – due to aerial views of its event growth, due to be held 28 June.

Google, for all their domination of Internet search, privacy questions and more, also have profoundly positive employment policies and with subtle changes of their logo doodle each day can send messages to billions. They’ve even done special rainbow styling on LGBT and equal marriage searches during big votes on the issue.

Though, are companies like Goldman Sachs meddling with local culture by being brazenly equality-minded? Is it a throwback to Western colonialist imposition or patronisingly paternalist interference? Certainly, we haven’t got equality right in our own countries yet. Gay British footballers don’t feel safe to come out yet. Lord Browne, the former chair of BP, never felt it acceptable to be ‘out’ at work, indeed he only did so after resigning when he was about to be ‘outed’ by an ex-lover.

Again, it works both ways, we as consumers and as corporates have the power to effect change. Mozilla’s CEO was forced out, no not in that sense, he wasn’t gay, he lost his job for supporting an anti-gay marriage campaign in the US. Boycotts of their browser by LGBT campaigners and staff forced him to quit. In reaction, conservative groups in America boycotted the Firefox browser for its support of equal marriage.

Corporate sponsorship is not evil of itself and can help people recognise inclusive employers that are safe to work for. In some societies where equality is still an emerging issue, it can be a risky stance to take, but globalisation can bring equality benefits to all countries where companies have representation. Check out the statements of the likes of Google, Goldman Sachs, JP Morgan and BP on Pink Dot’s website.

Wael Ghonim, Revolution 2.0 - The power of the people is greater than the people in powerEgyptian Wael Ghonim, just 33 years of age, has worked for Google in Egypt and UAE since 2008, though took time out in 2011 during the Egyptian Revolution as part of the Arab Spring in North Africa and the Middle East. He was detained and interrogated by Police for 11 days during the pro-democracy rallies having been a prime mover behind some of the social media, Facebook and Twitter, harnessing of people power.

Ghonim was interviewed on CBS’ 60 Minutes saying:

“Our revolution is like Wikipedia, okay? Everyone is contributing content, [but] you don’t know the names of the people contributing the content. This is exactly what happened. Revolution 2.0 in Egypt was exactly the same. Everyone contributing small pieces, bits and pieces. We drew this whole picture of a revolution. And no one is the hero in that picture.”

Ghonim was Time magazine’s no#1 on their annual world’s 100 most influential people in 2011. In the same year he was awarded the Press Freedom prize on World Press Freedom Day.

In his 2011 TEDx talk in Cairo, on the inside story of the Egyptian revolution, he said “The Power Of The People Is Much Stronger Than The People In Power”  (9m26 into the video)

“Revolution 2.0 – The power of the people is greater than the people in power”, is also the title of Ghonim’s 2012 book, described by the San Francisco Chronicle as “a gripping chronicle of how a fear-frozen society finally topples its oppressors with the help of social media”.

Philanthropic capitalists have also searched for Capitalism 2.0, a “creative capitalism” that sacrifices profits for public welfare, as Bill Gates said in 2008. The 400+ billionaires of the Giving Pledge who have volunteered to give away more than half their wealth, some as much as 95% of it, are definitely have the power to change things. Milton Friedman might have argued that profit was the only motivation in business, but green businesses, community interest companies and the realisation that good PR, ethics and equality, can actually raise profits, are changing that.

London, 27 May 2014, saw a conference on so-called “Inclusive Capitalism“. Focused on renewing trust, one could easily dismiss the initiative given the likes of Rothschild and Bill Clinton’s involvement. Indeed, Dr Nafeez Ahmed, writing in the Guardian, called it PR spin and a “Trojan Horse” to quell a coming global revolt. So is corporate inclusivity to be trusted?

Rarely, too, are situations simplistic. take Starbucks, they have used legal methods to avoid tax liabilities and yet have also paid Ethiopian coffee farmers a 75% premium over market prices as corporate welfare. Fair Trade schemes may appear to benefit third world producers but in some countries they are not the most beneficial or ethical system and stringent label certification can lock out smaller producers and increase inequality.

South Africa is the largest producer of Fairtrade wine in the world and yet, even there, concerns about traditional FairTrade labelling and its insufficient benefits to workers have led to rival schemes such as Fair for Life and others that go further, offering housing, healthcare and education to employees. Stellar Organics is one such winery where it is 26% owned by the workforce and Fair for life certified.

It is both complex and simple, we can use social media to produce “The People 2.0”, informatise and organise, communitise and unionise, we have the power… make corporates recognise that, and society and governments can and will change.

[This article first appeared here]

Image Credits
Montage of Pink Dot Singapore photos 2009-2014 http://pinkdotmtl.org/wp-content/uploads/2011/07/2009-2011-Size-Matters.jpg
http://teryndriver.wordpress.com/2012/07/14/the-power-of-the-people-3/ unattributed image with Wael Ghonim quote added by myself
Historical NUS/University of London Union Boycott Barclays student union poster http://africanactivist.msu.edu/image.php?objectid=32-131-2B3

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