We can all breathe a sigh of relief – the recession is over! Oops… Actually the recession was over in June 2009 already. So let’s get this party started!
But for some reason the public party hasn’t stated yet. The recession is over but the pain remains for the Average Joe in the street. No jobs being created and a drop in the average wealth of Americans just to rub salt in the wounds. But it’s been bad for everyone, no doubt. And we all did our fair share of suffering during the recession – some more than others. More importantly, companies practiced their responsibility during the recession, right?
A few things have really bugged me during this recession – or whatever you want to call it. It comes down to a simple question of how would a responsible company act during a recession. I’m not convinced that all companies acted as responsible as they should have during these tough economic times.
Firstly, it’s been reported that corporate cash in America is at a record high. The Fed estimated $1.8 trillion in total corporate cash balances in both absolute numbers and as a percent of total corporate revenue. A nice pile of money. And of course there are rational thinking behind it. They have good reasons for keeping the cash. But having a rational reason doesn’t mean it is the right reason. I feel uncomfortable knowing that it was the public money that bailed out so many companies. And that it is public money going into the stimulus that targets businesses of all sizes to benefit. And that people expect the public to start spending to get the economy going again. People are paying for this recession through job losses and rising public debt. My question – what should a company that believes it has a responsibility towards the public do during these times? Should it keep record cash stashed away for when the economy picks up or should it use that money to also help stimulate the economy? It just feels as if all expectations are on the average Joe in the street and the government to lead the recovery while too many businesses sit and wait it out until the economy has recovered. Doesn’t make sense when they always promote the idea that they are the heart of the economy. Really? And when the blood doesn’t flow as fast as you like you decide to stop beating for a while?
I believe a responsible company would acknowledge that they are as much of the problem as all of us – and do as much as the rest of us when trying to dig ourselves out of it. They expect us to start spending to get this economy going. We expect them to start spending as well. You don’t want us to put all our money in the bank right now. You want us to buy new cars, build new houses, buy more clothes, speculate on the market – make the little we have work for the economy. Ditto… We want you to invest in new fleets, upgrade your facilities, keep your workers… Make your money work and make it work now. I’ll do it when you do it. Don’t ask the public to do something you aren’t willing to do yourself. Stop giving us reasons why you are holding the cash. You might have good reasoning but not as good as the reasons why you should make that cash work now. It’s always easier to say why you won’t do something than doing the right thing. And remember, the quicker we get out of this the better it will be for all of us.
Secondly, this thing about those jobs not being created… I am always amazed how companies consistently tell me that their employees are their greatest assets. Really? But you don’t hesitate to “downsize” when the bad times roll? If employees are really the greatest asset that a company might have – how about keeping those crown jewels during tough times? Of course I understand that companies will have to fire workers during really tough times. And we’ve had really tough times. But let’s put these tough times into a bit of perspective.
Of course it makes 100% sense to let workers go when a company is making a loss. Companies cannot exist when not making money. But here is the catch. Many companies didn’t let workers go because of the losses the companies were making but because of lower profits. Many of them weren’t making losses, they were just making lower profits than before. That’s a huge difference. Making a loss means that you might have to close your doors and one of the only ways to save the company is to let a few people go – cut costs. But what if you are still making a profit but just lower than expected? Do you cut your workforce or define a new strategy to you can keep your “greatest asset” and be ready for when the good times kick in?
Maybe you should devise a strategy where you retrain those workers, maybe cut some hours off some of their time, maybe cut the bonuses and pay increases for all workers (including senior staff), invest in strengthening relationships with key customers etc – show your innovative spirit you brag about by finding new ways to keep your workers and stay profitable during tough times. Instead of laying people off you invest in them to be better placed than your competitors when the economy turns for the better? Your workforce will be better, sharper and your relationships stronger. I know a company who did exactly this and guess what? They actually grew at a higher rate than their competitors during the tough times and moved from number 3 in their industry to number 1. I’m just damn glad I work for that company… It helps when you have visionary leadership, your “greatest assets” believe in you as much as you believe in them, and we all work extra hard to make all of us better. Simple strategy? Yes. But it takes leadership to know that.
Maybe that is what a responsible company should be doing during a “slow growth” period. Instead of taking the easy option and letting people go you invest in them and grow your market share. Show you believe in your “greatest asset” as much as what you want them to believe in you. Leadership is defined not by what you do during the good times but what you do during the bad times. Relationships, loyalty, responsibility etc are defined in the same way – by what you do during the bad times and not the good times. The good times are easy but the bad times needs leadership, vision and balls.
But it goes beyond pure leadership. I think trade unions and employees were soft during these the recession as well. Too often they allowed the business side to frame the debate. They allowed business to panic and let workers go without a thoughtful strategy. Also, some companies used the opportunity to streamline their workforce that might not have been possible during other times. Cut human resources costs during the bad times always makes more sense from a risk and reputation perspective than doing it during the good times. Actually, it still comes back to leadership – what it takes to gear a company for the long-term and build a true culture of “great assets”.
You might not be able to create new jobs but you can show your responsibility as a company by not letting workers go during “slow growth” periods. It’s bad for all of us – every business suffered. But keeping your greatest assets intact and polishing them a bit will put you ahead of your competitors when the time comes. And now? Now you will be playing catch-up.
As a third point – the investor excuse. Of course many companies cut their workforce because investors demanded it. Those darn investors… They always want their 20% return each year. Actually, the 20% per year types aren’t really the problem. It’s those 1% week guys that are the problem – they want their money to go in-and-out and have no commitment to any specific business in the long run. So companies are under short-term pressure to show constant growth in returns. And if you can’t do it with growth then you do it by cutting costs. Talk about cutting off your nose…
Investor responsibility has been at the sidelines of CSR for far too long. We just can’t seem to get a grip on them. Maybe it is because we don’t know how to “sell” responsibility to them. Or maybe it is because many of them just don’t care. That’s for another day as Enron, BP etc have made a solid case on why CSR is important for investors… Here is a note for companies – how about you focusing on those who actually do care about you? We do. Us consumers and those workers of yours. We want you to succeed. Investors? The speculators amongst them don’t care about you one dime. What they do care about is the return they get from you in the next week or month. If they see someone better looking? They move on. They act like a 16-year-old who promises you the world as long as they can get what they want – untill they find the next hot one and move on. I’m 40-ish. I’ll stick with you if you promise to stick with me…
Last point on a responsible recession – patriotism. I was in a meeting a few weeks back with some of the best minds around. All of them geared towards helping a great company break through the clutter – they do so much that they create white noise instead of a clear position when it comes to CSR. Anyway, all these values were written on the board that reflected what the company stood for. And then someone said the “A” word – America… They argued that the company should show more pride in them being an American company with American values. Of course my first reaction was … WTF? I did point out that those values written on the board were no different from the corporate values practiced in my country of birth South Africa or the UK – or Europe. Or Japan. Or… The point was that most values are shared by various different cultures and that the differences are marginal not matter how much we like to tell ourselves something different.
But it did make me think about patriotism. The reason why the idea of American values were raised in the meeting was because the people in the room were pretty patriotic – and rightly so, be proud of who you are and where you come from even when you are more or less the same when compared to others. But what does corporate patriotism mean during a recession? Patriotism isn’t something CSR takes seriously but it is something we should look into when a company claims certain values and make claims of patriotism through advertising, lobbying etc. So the question was – what would a patriotic and responsible company do during a recession? Will they fire their fellow Americans? If yes, what does that tell you about their patriotism? Are they “fair weather” patriots who will say the right thing to get attention but then not back it up by action?
If you claim patriotism in some form then your actions should reflect that. Not only should you not downsize when you aren’t making a loss but you should go out of your way to help rebuild your country with the record cash you have in hand. Isn’t that what a responsible patriot will do? Use their resources to help their fellow Americans? Or does patriotism stop at getting people to buy a product made by an American company? Of course “made in” is a completely different story – and so are taxes. But that we’ll leave for another day.
Do I think companies acted responsibly during the recession? Some did and some didn’t. Those who let workers go when they weren’t making a loss lost their right to make the “greatest asset” claim. Don’t expect the same level of loyalty and commitment because you didn’t show it. Those who kept their cash when it could be used more effectively to rebuild the economy weren’t responsible citizens because they expected their fellow citizens to pick up most of the slack. Those who did everything to keep speculators, I mean short-term investors, happy weren’t looking at their long-term responsibility to their own company. Those who beat the drum to get consumer to buy their American products but didn’t put their own money into the game weren’t very patriotic or responsible.
The recession showed, and continues to show, us those companies who truly practice responsibility to themselves and society. Some were caught out while others shared the burden with the rest of us. The recession was good for CSR because it helped us define success of CSR in the toughest of conditions. Some failed and some helped us build a more responsible and profitable corporate world. At the very least the recession showed us the true CSR colors of companies. A good spin or substance…
So tell me – Were you a responsible corporate citizen during the recession? Really?