Corporate Eye

Five levels of corporate citizenship

One of the blogs I keep my little beady eye upon is “Civilising the Economy” by Marvin Brown, professor of business ethics at the University of San Francisco.  You can get  a measure of the man and his writing from the blog’s strapline:

My goal here is not to think outside the box but change the box we think in.

Anyway, a recent post he’s put up is about developing a new course on the ethics of social transformation from a global citizen perspective.  Whilst not directly linked to them, I thought it would be useful to share the several levels of citizenship he identifies and discuss them from the business and corporate citizenship perspective.

As we’ll see, the gap between business and global citizenship sharing the same bench is wider than you might think.

The common citizen

This is the basic level of citizenship, where you realise our common humanity is the place to deal with our social differences, and is tied to the principle of integrity.

It’s quite scary to realise just how many businesses fail to clear this first hurdle.  If there is no integrity in a business (e.g.  how ethics was literally shredded at Barclays) then there cannot be a recognition of a common and equitable humanity, and without that a business will pursue only what is in its own short term interest and not the long term interest of all.

The participatory citizen

Once you recognise the role of our common humanity it’s a short step to participating in it with concrete action.  For that action to be effective there has to be a degree of deliberation behind it and a recognition of equality between different people and cultures.

This is where the idea of corporate citizenship starts to take off and can be fine-tuned to asking whether a corporation should take wealth from one area to feed into another (e.g. resignations over the proposal to destroy some of Bangaldesh’s most fertile farmland for a coal mine).

A represented citizen

Once you’re participating in the process of finding an equitable solution the next logical step is to have your views represented to those in power: in other words, making sure those who make the rules are accountable for the effects those rules have.

From the corporate point of view this is more than just lobbying.  Citizenship is about recognising and acting for common humanity, so businesses need to argue not just for their own benefit but for the benefit of all the people impacted by their actions.

Private and public citizens

There are naturally in this world private and publicly owned possessions.  Looking after both is a form of stewardship, ensuring private possessions are maintained for the good of the owner, and making sure public possessions can be sustained for as long as possible to bring benefit to as wide a range of people as possible.

Businesses correctly think about what is under their purview as being a private possession which is, by and large, theirs to steward and manage as they see best.  However many of the impacts a business has are upon public possessions and businesses therefore have just as strong an imperative to ensure their stewardship and sustainability.

Key to this is reforming the idea that “privatising” an impact by paying money (e.g. BP’s admission of criminality and payment of a fine) is good citizenship.  It is not: remaining engaged with the public environment and dealing with it on that level is.

Becoming a global corporate citizen

So finally you reach the pinnacle of this series of levels.  Growing from the recognition and participation in a common humanity through which there is an equitable outcome for all, through an engagement in both public and privately owned assets and spaces, to where you can have open conversations with all people and culture around the world.

This is where the key issues of justice and human rights come into play, in particular ensuring that no person suffers a disproportionate loss of wealth or standard of living in order to generate greater wealth for another.  In essence, it means ensuring that there is no net loss throughout the business process.

The term “global citizen” is bandied around quite freely within the CSR community yet I wonder if there really are any genuine global citizens out there?

Businesses who engage with the communities they impact, not just as part of a consultative process but in a genuine desire to see whether their commercial imperative will bring real and long lasting benefit to that community, promoting stewardship of both public and private possessions.

It’s a difficult one to square and I’m not sure it’s yet been achieved.  What do you think?

Picture credit: PIC1090133390144 / kconnors / morgueFile

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A former CTO, Chris has a broad and varied background. He’s been involved with blue chips, consultancies & SMEs across a wide variety of sectors and has worked in Europe, the Middle East and Australia. In 2007 he decided to combine his knowledge of business and IT with his passion for all things sustainable and has been busy writing ever since. However, his greatest ambition remains to brew the perfect cup of coffee.