In A Willfully Unethical Era, Maybe We Need A CHNO – A Chief Human Needs Officer – Sitting In At The Top Level Of Decision Making

checklist_200-s6-c10We have just two reasons that we may fail.
The first is ignorance – we may err because science has given us only a partial understanding of the world and how it works. There are skyscrapers we do not yet know how to build, snowstorms we cannot predict, heart attacks we still haven’t learned how to stop. The second type of failure the philosophers call ineptitude – because in these instances the knowledge exists, yet we fail to apply it correctly. This is the skyscraper that is built wrong and collapses, the snowstorm whose signs the meteorologist just plain missed, the stab wound from a weapon the doctors forgot to ask about.
For nearly all of history, people’s lives have been governed primarily by ignorance…
Failures of ignorance we can forgive. If the knowledge of the best thing to do in a given situation does not exist, we are happy to have people simply make their best effort. But if the knowledge exists and is not applied correctly, it is difficult not to be infuriated.

Atul Gawande, The Checklist Manifesto: How to Get Things Right

Willful BlindnessWillfully blind: denying truths that are too painful, too frightening to confront. It’s something we all do… Many, perhaps even most, of the greatest crimes have been committed not in the dark, hidden where no one could see them, but in full view of so many people who simply chose not to look and not to question. Whether in the Catholic Church, the SEC, Nazi Germany, the embers of BP’s refinery, the military in Iraq, or the dog-eat-dog world of sub-prime mortgage lenders, the central challenge posed by each case was not harm that was invisible, but harm that so many preferred to ignore.
Once the idea of willful blindness lodged in my mind, I started to see it everywhere.
Margaret Heffernan, Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at our Peril

Of course, business causing harm isn’t new.
Christine Bader, The Evolution of a Corporate Idealist: When Girl Meets OilCorporate Idealist


I just read the excerpts of Bob Morris’ interview with Christine Bader on our blog, and then downloaded the sample pages of her book, and read the opening pages. The book is now in my reading stack.

And, I’ve been thinking about Toyota’s move of its corporate headquarters to the Dallas area (Rick Perry has been running a few victory laps).

And, recently, I delivered my new keynote for the first time:   Willfully Unethical: The Ethical Challenge for Our Era. (Yes, the title grew out of my further thinking from Margaret Heffernan’s book, Willful Blindness).

Here’s what I think: when profits trump everything else, we’ve got a cycle of harm inevitably heading our way.

Let’s divide corporate wrongdoing into three categories:

Category #1 – Ignorantly harmful. You know, many centuries ago, if a person was ill, doctors tried to cure them by simply drawing blood from their bodies.

Ignorance is everywhere present, and we are always seeking to become much less ignorant.

Until we know the right path, when someone does his/her own best effort with the knowledge at hand, you can simply say “thanks for the effort.” See the quote above by Atul Gawande to understand this concept.

Many acts of harm flow out of “ignorantly harmful acts,” and you really can’t blame anyone for that. We just have to learn enough to grow out of our ignorance.

Category #2 – Willfully unethical. This is what happens when people in business know that what they are doing is harmful – they know it can have genuine human consequences that can be devastating – and they do it anyway.

Shame on such people. Literally, shame on them! We should heap massive amounts of shame, and very tangible penalties (with enough incentives to drive them to change such behaviors) on any corporation that tolerates leaders who make such willfully unethical moves. When a company knows it is doing harm… For example, when a company is knowingly releasing harmful chemicals into the atmosphere, near neighborhoods… well shame on them.

Here’s some current news, (I read it in this article: Pollution Is a Violent Crime—Prosecute It as Such):

A Citgo refinery bordering Corpus Christi’s poor, largely minority Hillcrest neighborhood was illegally allowing benzene and other pollutants to escape its tanks. A jury found it guilty, not just civilly, but criminally.
Benzene causes cancer, thins the blood to cause symptoms resembling hemophilia, and damages fetuses exposed to it. 

Think about this – a company knows what it is spewing into the atmosphere, around the corner from where mothers and fathers and children live; mothers and fathers who love their children just as much as those corporate decision makers love their own children. How dare they?! Shame on them.

And, sadly, this is only one story of very many such stories of such willfully unethical behavior.

But, there is a third category:

Category #3 – Obliviously harmful. I’m not sure I’ve got the right word for this category. But, let’s think about this…

A company builds its buildings and factories, and then becomes part of the community. It intends to be a good neighbor, doing its part to help the community become a nurturing, successful place for folks to live. They pay their taxes, they volunteer for projects; their children go to the schools, and grow up in this community. These people, who work for these companies, are part of the very fabric of the community surrounding their buildings and factories.

And then, one day, they decide to close down and move elsewhere. The move will save them money, put them in a better place to do business in the next chapter of their competitive existence. Do I fault them? Not quite… but the damage done to the abandoned community is pretty deep.

Such were my first thoughts as I read about the Toyota move to the Dallas area. Oh, I am thrilled – I live here. My property values go up as our area becomes ever more desirable. And our area of the country is thriving.

But what about the abandoned communities? What will happen to them?

I don’t think the Toyota leaders meant any harm to the community they are leaving. (“Obliviously harmful”). But, make no mistake – as companies leave communities, harm is the outcome… leaving will cause harm.

Consider this statistic, from a city that has truly been devastated over quite a few decades:

Population, Detroit, 1950 – 1,849,568
Population, Detroit, 2013 – 681,090

And I assume you know of the difficulties Detroit has faced in recent years.

When companies close, or move, there is damage left in its wake.

Here’s a thought from a fictional speech, delivered by Andrew Jorgenson (Gregory Peck) from the movie Other People’s Money:

A business is worth more than the price of its stock. It’s the place where we earn our living, where we meet our friends, dream our dreams. It is, in every sense, the very fabric that binds our society together.

What’s in it for me – if we lure a company from its community to our community? That seems to be what drives us. And when “what’s in it for me?” is our driving force, it obviously means that we do not care what happens to the community that is left behind. We only care about our triumph.

I don’t know where to draw the line on any of this. Well, yes I do – on part of it.

If we are harmful out of ignorance, we’ve got to learn our way out of such ignorance. That is the story of human progress. We are far less ignorant than we used ot be – and we will continue to grow more and more knowledgable.

If we are willfully unethical, and doing harm while knowing that we are doing harm, then we must be held to account. And our society has to find the way to say – enough!

It’s this third one that is tough. If we are obliviously harmful, we need to grow some bigger hearts, and we at least need to think about the implications of our corporate decisions. We need someone in the room where such decisions are made to ask: “as we seek better profits, what about the human cost of our decisions?”

Maybe we need a CHNO – a Chief Human Needs Officer – sitting in one of those chairs.  There are already enough “Chief Corporate Profits Officers” in the room already.   Profits will be pursued, for sure.  Who will care about the human needs?


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