Optimistic corporate purposes are white-washing reality.
The last few years have seen the eulogising of purpose. And I applaud this. I’ve written before of how worthy an idea purpose is. I do, however, find it surprising how many companies have, after extensive soul searching, settled on a purpose that basically says they’re going to save the planet and help people.
These are noble sentiments and it would be churlish to question them. But I hope it’s not bad form to suggest that some companies are getting a little ahead of themselves. They keep talking about the destination but the journey isn’t really clear.
The silencing power of say-do gaps
Let’s take a recent example. Companies have rediscovered their love of an international day. These calendar dates, once the preserve of activists and the occasional internal comms memo, have become a core part of every company’s corporate narrative.
For International Women’s Day, there was a flood of posts from companies across all sectors talking about the brilliance of many women who work for them. It doesn’t take much effort for the slightly curious to look up the gender pay gap reporting of these firms and wonder why, if they value female employees so much, they don’t pay them the same as men?
The rhetoric is ahead of the reality. But few will speak up and call it out. Activists and the disgruntled might. However, those without a platform or an agenda won’t. Employees (current and future) won’t, because it would be career limiting. Suppliers won’t, because it could be commercially costly. There is a cacophony of silence around these crowing corporate announcements that is troubling.
Cheap talk costs reputations
Mental health is another case in point. Recently, a lot companies have picked up on mental wellbeing as a talking point. Yet a huge amount of survey evidence exists to say that workers are more stressed than ever.
I’m being careful not to name names here (see my previous point about dissension being career-limiting). But I am concerned that this constant, incessant positivity seems to fly in the face of reality.
Is all really for the best in these the best of all corporations?
No, of course it isn’t. Companies are full of people with good intentions doing good things but inevitably bad things happen. There are side-effects and unintended consequences. We might not like them but we cannot wish them out of existence.
And even if people don’t call you out on it, they are thinking it. It is costing companies in trust and reputation. People don’t always tell you that they think less of you.
I suspect one of the reasons these positive messages roll forward so readily is the low cost of owned channels, particularly corporate websites, where firms can say what they want. So they do. And it turns out what they want to say is anodyne, self-serving drivel.