The idea of “business” seems to have fooled many people, because cleverly hidden at its core is a single guiding principle and goal: profit. Business’s goal is profit. Manufacture something to distribute it at a profit; coordinate an array of goods to sell them at a profit; provide a service for a profit. Business succeeds or fails on that sole principle: profit. The goal of any action tells everything: what people will do, say, and jeopardize is defined by the goal…with this clear principle in mind, business easily takes on the personae that Dwight refers to above: business is a cold, profit-driven affair.
In conducting business, companies spend billions marketing themselves and their products as something personal: you will be happier, you will be healthier, you will have more time, you will be more successful…with our product or service. “Buy and benefit!” they say. To be fair, I am a big consumer and I feel happy to be happier, healthier, etc. because of my purchases. But my personal happiness is only a small item in the process, a by-product along the seller’s road to success. The mantra from The Godfather (1972) is correct, it’s not personal, it’s just business.
In today’s world, a new business has evolved—still cleverly fooling us and hiding its goal: personal information. This form of business clearly fools people, as it arose and evolved and succeeded in plain sight. We all “reviewed” the privacy contracts and agreed to them…but who foresaw the insidious nature and universal scope of this business? Google seems free; Facebook seems free; LinkedIn and Twitter and Instagram seem free, but they come at a price. Apps on your cellular device seem free, but they come at a price. Allegedly beneficial services track everything about us and sell it to any bidder…because the business goal is profit. The charm and intimacy and “friends” of Facebook are a by-product of the business…the interactions may feel personal, but it’s all business. That business and its profit are insidiously based not on selling to you…they are based on selling you to the bidders.
Even after their methods have been revealed, even after Congressional testimonies and multimillion-dollar fines, we’ve all read and agreed to their “new & improved” privacy statements as a way to feel personally protected. Nevertheless, the last shards of privacy are gone and the selling continues at a profit.
“Ethically,” businesses are committed to creating profits for the owners—private or public. The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) oversees that process for the public sector, and professes “to protect investors; maintain fair, orderly, and efficient markets; and facilitate capital formation….to help [investors] secure their futures, pay for homes, and send children to college.” But there is little to no spoken consideration of the quality of product or service, integrity to the customer, or rights of the employees. All too often, business ethics end with the commitment to profits. As investors, we like the profit side of the balance sheet; but as customers and employees, even as private citizens, we’ve learned, “There is the no balance to the balance sheet.” Let’s not be foolish about that.