Corporate Eye

Lehman Brothers: Why Real Business Leaders Do CSR

The blogs are buzzing and the papers burning: not since Diana has some many column inches been created by so many journalists and commentators. In fact (whisper it quietly) it may even surpass Diana’s death.

Of course, I’m talking about Lehman Brothers collapsing into bankruptcy, Merrill Lynch (where I once gave seminars on Desktop Publishing!) being sold to Bank of America and … who knows what about to happen to AIG.

Bad days, everyone one agrees. There’s no more ostrich-head sticking in the sand, no more “Nah .. it’s just a bad squall, it’ll pass.” No, this time it’s serious.

“A seismic event” which is “testing where the failure point lies”, according to commentators on Radio Four’s flagship “Today” programme. Note that word: FAILURE. Not often spoken even by financial pessimists.

The Crash is Upon Us
So now we can openly talk about the meltdown which is upon us. Northern Rock and Bear Stearns were something of a preamble, an appetiser for the main course of chewy, low quality beef now being served.

Will yesterday go down as “Black Monday” in homage to October 24th 1929, when the Great Wall Street Crash started? That’s up to the vanities of newspaper editors, who are a strange bunch of fish when it comes to these things.

What is for sure is that we are now in a crash which is just as great, just as spectacular and just as damaging. Nobody’s flung themselves out of a window (yet), but that’s simply because no one feels that they’ve let anyone down that badly.

What Will You Do?
Hang on a second … am I advocating that any banker or dealer who wishes to show their remorse should fling themselves off the top of Canary Wharf? No. I’m simply wondering why, in 1929, brokers felt that much responsibility and shame but they don’t appear to now?

The pay gap between people in the City and employees elsewhere in London is regularly described as being “ridiculous”. These huge amounts of money are usually justified by pointing to excessive hours or work and the stress of taking risks.

It is this enormous pay gap which draws people to work in the city, nothing else. They take the stress and long hours as part of the culture, what you need to suffer in order to earn that kind of money.

But do they take the responsibility? Are they there simply to earn stonking amounts of money so that they can, as Adam Smith put it, “walk about loaded with a multitude of baubles”?

Or are they there to invest other people’s money wisely?

Why Did You Do It?
I do not wish to offend, I simply observe. Every single worker who is leaving Lehman Brothers today, or any other institution in days to come, will be extremely worried about their own personal circumstances and rightly so.

It cannot be easy to be earning well over £100,000pa and then find your income for this month is zero. I know: I did it a few times at £50,000pa and it was very painful for both me and my family.

However, I heard yesterday of one lady whose entire pension is tied up in Lehman Brothers. Employees can go out and get another job: pensioners’ options are rather more limited.

How many of the departing Lehman Brothers employees are thinking of this lady, or the countless others who have lost their income for the rest of their lives?

Who Takes Responsibility?
As any good soldier knows, you always follow orders when they’re given. You can question, debate and discuss in the fullness of time, but in the heat of battle you just get on with what you’re commanded to do.

Business and finance work along the same lines. Your boss tells you to do something and you do it. So some, probably most, of this lack of responsibility cannot lie just with the employees.

For example, what responsibility did the CEOs of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac take? That’s not known, but after their companies were nationalised they walked away with $9m and $14m respectively.

You cannot blame these CEOs for the turbulence on the stock markets which brought their companies low, any more than you can blame a ship’s captain for the storm which sank his vessel.

You could, however, question the captain’s judgement for putting out to sea in such bad weather (risk) or not ensuring his ship was properly maintained (liquidity).

So when corporate leaders start to talk about Corporate Social Responsibility they need to weigh those words very carefully and examine exactly what they mean.

Do they mean giving to charity, improving the working conditions of employees and communities in the developing world, engaging with NGOs and allowing their employees time out to work for good causes?

Do they mean taking responsibility for their company’s actions, promising to return salaries and bonuses should their actions end up damaging, not supporting, society as whole?

Or do they mean ticking boxes to keep the regulators and shareholders happy, an annoyance which has to be suffered in order to ensure the money continues to flow?

With a neat editorial flick of the wrist, this morning the Today Programme featured a story about various recordings of American poets which have been released. “Home To Roost”, by the new US poet laureate Kay Ryan, was one:

The chickens
are circling and
blotting out the
day. The sun is
bright, but the
chickens are in
the way. Yes,
the sky is dark
with chickens,
dense with them.
They turn and
then they turn
again. These
are the chickens
you let loose
one at a time
and small—
various breeds.
Now they have
come home
to roost—all
the same kind
at the same speed.
Picture Credit: “Sunset Road” by Tambako the Jaguar on Flickr under Creative Commons Attribution No Derivative Licence.
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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.

For those of us who don’t speak corporate buzzword, could you clarify what “CSR” is?

Hi there .. good to hear from you, thank you for getting in touch.

CSR is usually translated as Corporate Social Responsibility but is generally taken to refer to all of a business’ green endeavours. Personally I prefer the phrase “sustainability” because it embraces much more and is less open to discussion about its meaning. This may be the first time I’ve ever used the term “CSR” without knocking it, simply because I was talking specifically about the social effects :)

For more details, please read

In the meantime CSR is not necessarily a corporate buzzword. Most businesses seem to think it’s something being foisted on them that they could well do without.

I like your thoughts in the last paragraph: “So when corporate leaders start to talk about Corporate Social Responsibility they need to weigh those words very carefully and examine exactly what they mean.” Indeed. Where does CSR start and end?

Hi CSR Jobs — thank you for the comment! I guess there is no beginning or end to CSR … There was the old refrain “no tax without representation” .. I hear an echo of this in the currently garbled chant of “no rewards without the risk”, aimed at $multi million CEOs. Interesting times, as the Chinese would observe.

BTW, I hope you managed to check out the subsequent post about the ISSP ( … probably right up your street!

This is an interesting post. All companies should care about the ‘humane’ quotient while dealing with their employees and their clients. This is because being professional does not mean being devoid of all ‘humane’traits.

The CSR approach is a wonderful gesture towards building long term relationships with clients and customers. It heralds a much awaited change in the overtly profit-oriented corporate arena.

Tamara .. I think you hit the nail on the head :)

CSR is about ensuring there in a “humane” aspect to all business dealings. Stop counting the beans, start counting the lives. That’s the real bottom line.

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