When -- and How -- Did Business Become the Enemy?

04/26/2013 10:52 am ET | Updated Jun 26, 2013
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Business has always had its critics and detractors. The unpopular actions of individual companies, e.g., onerous or unsafe working conditions or low wages, appropriately have elicited criticism for decades, including popular music literature, strikes and marches, and corrective legislation.

However, as bad as conditions are today with the continuing economic crisis, things are markedly better for workers than they were at the turn of the century, during the Great Depression, or even the 1980s, when corporate downsizing shattered the social contract of lifetime employment.

Most often our feelings about business come as a result of our personal interaction with business. Impersonal voice mail systems claiming to exist to 'serve you better' are seen as a buffer against the consumer. Customer service nightmare stories demonstrate to people that the valued 'loyal customer experience' exists as the exception, rather than the rule (as anyone attempting to claim and use airline miles can attest).

For most of us the most impactful interaction we have of business is the one we have as workers with our employers. And the breakdown of that relationship is perhaps the most troubling. People question whether or not they are valued as people, and whether or not they can trust their leadership. The popular TV show Undercover Boss reveals senior leaders who are often remarkably disconnected from the reality on the ground.

At the same time, employers seem to question the loyalty and skills of workers. A recent article, "American Workers Lack Common Sense Skills, Executives Say," on this website seemed to validate the perception that people in the c-suite are looking for reasons (some would say excuses) to keep workers from advancing up the corporate ladder. "Workers lack communication, collaboration, critical thinking and creative skills executives say, according to a recent survey by the American Management Association. Turns out, bosses aren't too excited about their underlings' abilities, a prospect they're getting more worried about considering such skills will be more important amid a changing business landscape," stated the article. At the same time, retirement accounts decimated during the downturn are causing more and more business leaders to stay at the helm longer.

Is this just rationalization for not advancing people (or shipping jobs overseas), a justification to avoid feeling guilty about not passing the reigns to a generation champing at the bit for their turn to be in charge, or something more?

Many workers worry that the folks in the corner office are either overpaid do-nothings or unethical self-interested 'sharks' out for their own financial gain. This disconnect between workers and the c-suite is a sad state of affairs.

The article went on: "The emphasis over the past years has been on high tech skills like math and science for workers, but what's missing in the discussion is the ability to communicate and make key decisions at lower levels." Indeed, in cases I have seen, workers with business management backgrounds are more recognized by company leaders who value them for their ability to see the 'big' picture and sometimes resented by their peers who have focused on honing tactical skills over gaining broader knowledge.

One can judge by the more than 2,000 comments to the article that there is a simmering resentment against management and leaders, some based on rather spurious arguments. Some equated business leaders to Feudal Lords, another wrote that "American executives are effectively removed from reality by their obscene level of remuneration" offering a correlation between wealth with a disconnect from what is reasonable to expect from workers.

It is disappointing that some comments also demonstrate a bias against the changing demographics of the workforce whether it be racism ("As the minority population in increases, the quality of employees goes down") or ageism ("thats [sic] because they would rather hire some young snot right out of grad school without a lick of real world experience, over those with a lifetime of experience and learning.")

The mistrust is rampant. Fewer than one in five respondents in the 2013 Edelman Trust Barometer believes a business or governmental leader will actually tell the truth when someone confronts him or her with a difficult issue. Last year, people saw continual reinforcement of this lack of confidence in traditional authority figures, e.g., in high-profile scandals involving corporate and government officials and the belated admission of doping by Lance Armstrong.

It seems our heroes are letting us down -- in business, sports, government, etc. so there's no wonder that people feel resentment.

Seeking to understand this phenomenon I reached out to Dr. Lester A. Myers, newly appointed as the fourth president of an organization called the Center of Concern a 42-year-old think tank whose mission is to research, educate, and advocate from Catholic social tradition to create a world where economic, political, and cultural systems promote sustainable flourishing of the global community. I served with Dr. Myers on the board of directors of the Sustainable Business Network of Washington during his tenure as chair.

Doctor Myers, a well-respected thought and executive leader on issues of organizational integrity and responsibility, including corporate governance, seemed a natural person to ask. "Public perceptions about business started their downward trend around 1964 and, with the Abscam scandal in the 1970s, Three Mile Island, Marvin Warner and the savings and loan crisis, Ivan Boesky, Dennis Levine, Enron, Andersen, WorldCom, Madoff, and many others, these perceptions have continued to go lower and lower," responded Myers.

Myers points out that in the midst of revelations about Andersen, Enron, and WorldCom, polling at the time indicated that the two greatest concerns among Americans were (1) the pedophilia scandal in the Catholic Church, and (2) the mismanagement of donations of money and blood by the American Red Cross in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. "People expected corporations, lawyers, and politicians to be corrupt. They did not expect the Church and the American Red Cross to be this way," he explained.

"The global economic crisis beginning in 2007 has engendered significant anger against business (and government for being derelict in regulating it)," he offered. "If a foreign power had done to us what we did to ourselves, we would have been at war (i.e., a different war)."

Trust in our business institutions and models has eroded, with the elimination of the "contract" our parents' generation enjoyed of lifetime employment, and a defined benefit pension and a gold watch upon years of dedicated service. Today 401(k) accounts replace traditional pensions and it is not uncommon for people to jump from company to company to advance their career, rather than climbing the traditional "career ladder," a generational difference that reflects the history and the culture of Millennial workers who have learned that they are responsible for their own career and have seen the implosion of the economy as a lesson in self-reliance.

In my next blog I'll explore how corporations can regain public trust. Hint: They will have to earnit back, and it will not be easy.

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