THE BLOG
05/14/2013 02:37 pm ET | Updated Jul 14, 2013

Repairing the Rift Between Businesses and the Public

When I wrote and posted my last piece, "When -- And How -- Did Business Become the Enemy" I couldn't know it would be the most engaging piece I had written to date (based on the number of comments, emails, tweets, etc.) I concluded the piece with a dual promise to my readers. First I would follow up "In my next blog I'll explore how corporations can regain public trust." And second, I wasn't about to let business off the hook ("Hint: They will have to earn it back, and it will not be easy").

Even as most people disagreed with my basic premise that the malfeasance by some (far too many) should not result in a prejudice against all businesses and leaders, I am pleased that the discourse was polite and respectful. Many thought, and argued quite eloquently, that the condemnation was justified because of inherent characteristics of business that defines itself as "a person, partnership, or corporation engaged in commerce, manufacturing, or a service; profit-seeking enterprise or concern."

The best hope for this transformation may be in the millennial generation (also known as Gen-Y) that grew up seeing the failures of the 20th century model of capitalism and are redefining success. These younger entrepreneurs may be the wave of the future -- holistic business thinkers who believe that in order to be successful businesses have an obligation to appraise, engage, and most importantly enhance human, ecological, as well as financial resources.

These leaders don't want to be judged on profitability alone, but consider success in an economic downturn to include such metrics as the ability to cut costs without trimming their work forces -- as one said, "eliminating jobs is a last resort and a sign of my failure to predict and respond to a changing marketplace, so I should be the first to go."

These new entrepreneurs not only understand that the collective intelligence and intellectual power of their employees is a valuable asset, they also understand something that traditionalist businesses seem to have forgotten -- that the relationship between a person and their employer is intensely personal.

Employees want to believe that their leaders are looking out for them and care about them in exchange for their loyalty, hard work and dedication. But like the spouse confronted with incontrovertible evidence that their partner has engaged in an extramarital affair, people don't just feel betrayed -- they know that they have been. Even as they understand things like loss of pensions to keep a company viable or layoffs that preserved some jobs, they still feel the phrase "this isn't personal, it's just business" is a rationalization used to justify actions and assuage the guilt of those in charge so that they can sleep better at night in their comfortable beds. After all, what could be more personal than rejecting them and how can they not be upset when the actions of the company put their families at risk?

I also talked to business leaders who, I am sorry to say, quite often revealed a ham-handed approach. I heard about, and communicated directly with leaders who were leaders in name only -- people who were failing to inspire, failing to empathize and in some cases acting fearful of engaging with people on their payroll. "They're lucky to have a job," said one leader, and when pressed with "do you feel lucky to have them as your employees?" a shrug was the only response. It was depressing to say the least.

Another personal relationship -- and one that is too often failing -- is that between companies and consumers. Putting customers on hold, implementing voice mail systems that make it impossible to get a simple question answered and offering poor service treats customers as disposable rather than valued assets. How can a company expect customer loyalty if they don't treat customers as if they mattered?

That's why companies that "get it" talk about the experience they offer consumers. They talk about the trust people place in them purchasing their products, counting on those products to be safe and high quality.

The bottom line is, people are not willing to be cuckold again, and so they are very, very reluctant to trust, particularly those same companies that hurt them. And they also may find themselves mistrusting all business in order to maintain an emotional distance and not be hurt again. One can hardly blame them (us). So here's my prescription for restoring a healthy relationship between businesses and the public.

Accept the reality of the situation - As I said earlier, it IS personal. Loyalty and trust go hand and hand and are a two-way proposition. You may unfairly be being lumped in with other businesses and be completely deserving of trust. But the employees and customers with whom you want to have a relationship have been hurt badly by an organization that looks and sounds a lot like yours. They range from being skeptical to being downright skittish. If you're really that honorable, you'll be patient, kind, understanding and work at the relationship.

You're going to have to prove yourself -- time and time again - When corporate profits and the stock market hit record highs but jobs are not created, there is a disconnect between "your" success and "our" success. Trimming costs to create artificial and short-term numbers that appeal to financial analysts and day traders is not the way to rebuild loyalty. After all, you cannot continue to trim your way to profitability. Sooner or later the brain-drain will cost you. And having too few people doing too much work to make up for those let go is no way to run a business long term. And when the economy does recover, and jobs are created, instead of being grateful for the "port in a storm" the highest performers will be the first to jump to an organization that treats them with more respect and dignity.

Stop acting entitled - to every senior leader who has authorized a reduction in employees, cut benefits or reduced hours in an effort to save money, have you done all you can do to reduce costs FIRST? Are you cutting back on your lifestyle? Are you flying coach or reducing your travel? Have you taken a pay cut equivalent to the salary of your average employee in order to save their job? Have you turned back your bonus into a fund to keep those lower-paid workers employed? Too many leaders mollify themselves with the platitude that they saved some jobs, and therefore they should be rewarded. Or they saved the company from going under (laudable) and therefore should be rewarded. Not if long-term profitability has not been restored.

Truly value your customers - Cutting corners to cut costs at the expense of quality (and safety) is completely unacceptable. Factories in Bangladesh collapsing and/or bursting into flames is the direct result of a race to the lowest cost. If you blame consumers for driving prices down (and commoditizing your industry) you have to ask if you truly want to be in business long-term. Sure, there will always be people who cannot afford to shop elsewhere and patronize your establishment, but did you really go into business to be the provider of last resort?

Clean up your supply chain - Deaths of people in your supply chain - or children working in factories - ought to be a price you're not willing to pay. Leverage your buying power and your influence (after all, you give them your money) to insist on standards that at very least conform to the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If you cannot do that, as far as I am concerned, your business does not deserve my money, my labor or my respect.

Transparency - Anyone who has been in an abusive relationship (whether it has been with a person or employer or provider of goods and/or services) is going to be reluctant to be abused again. The only way to rebuild that relationship is to be open and honest about who you are. Be clear. Don't engage in "spin" or put the "good side" of the story forward unless you also reveal the negatives.

Remember, every company (or organization) lives its true values. They may not be the values on the website or on the wall. But what you do every day defines who you really are. If you want people to trust, like and be loyal to you then you better be deserving of those things. That's the ultimate prescription to heal the rift between business and the public. Be worthy of our trust every day and one day you'll discover you've earned it back.

It's just that simple -- and I told you it wouldn't be easy.