Expert Opinion

Reputation, reputation I ha’ lost my reputation: Beauty contest or integrity?

Professor Simon Robinson, Director of the Research Centre for Governance, Leadership and Global Responsibility at Leeds Beckett, shares his thoughts on how businesses communicate their ethical identities.

In my last blog post I suggested that there was something intrinsically problematic about the idea that authentic dialogue can be attached to a business case. Let me be clear, I am not saying that we should ditch business cases for success. I am simply arguing that the idea of authentic dialogue cannot be simplistically attached to it, and that the business case cannot be the primary motivation for authentic dialogue. This is partly because authentic dialogue is focused in taking the other (employee, stakeholder etc.) seriously, regardless of outcome. There is, however, no reason why business success cannot be part of that dialogue, and indeed it should be part of that dialogue, because a sustainable business is key to the shared project. In the light of this I would argue that authentic dialogue has both intrinsic and extrinsic elements; it is right in itself and it also informs effective practice.

It is a related issue I want to raise for this blog; how business and other organisations communicate their ethical identity. Underlying this is often the argument that: the trust of customers is based on the good reputation of the company; we cannot have success without a good reputation; the organisation needs to demonstrate its reputation. As Othello suggests in the title of this blog it is a big blow if you lose your reputation… just ask VW or Siemens. For Othello this really was something about his identity, his value; hence it is ‘the immortal part’ of his self he believes he has lost. For VW and Siemens it was a double loss: moral identity (valued by staff especially, see my Practice of Integrity in Business, p153-154 and final chapter) and money, lots of it.

So, the questions are, how do you create that reputation and the related integrity? How do you maintain it? How do you communicate it? If I asked you now if you have a good reputation, if you have integrity (and it would take another blog to tease that relationship out), what would you say? It is a tricky one because we all feel that is important, but it is hard to be absolutely confident about making that judgment about ourselves- after all most of us cannot see all there is to be known about ourselves. The exception, of course, is Mr Trump, who seems happy to broadcast just how ethical he is.

Ask the same questions about your organisation and what would you say? I walked through the main entrance of an esteemed institution last year to see a sign ‘we are a fully ethical [organisation]’. Admirable, possible even brave, but was it wise to assert such a judgement. How then can we communicate reputation?  It is a question which exercises many corporations leading to all kinds of indices:

Imagine how peeved one might feel if you ended up 250th, or with a bronze rather than gold star to acknowledge ones reputation. But why would you want to be in that list in the first place? To gain recognition of reputation? To look good?

But this seems to be sliding back into instrumentality. We work on our reputation to increase share value. Doesn’t this lead to the danger of what used to be called ‘green-washing’, developing a programme that looks like effective CSR, but actually not practising responsibility in day to day activities, not informing regular decision making and practice with core values or a sense of responsibility for the wider social and physical environment?

In new book out on CSR, Wayne Visser and Jochen Weikert (chapters 19 and 17 respectively) ague that CSR, of instance, should not be justified through the business case, i.e. how it affects the financial bottom line. There is simply no evidence that developing and trumpeting a CSR policy leads more to your profits, or leads to clients trusting you more, or to any sort of reward, other than a warm fuzzy feeling. But the argument from integrity goes further and says that integrity is central to the identity of the person or organization. The closest Aristotle gets to integrity is aletheia: truthfulness or the reliable and truthful re-presentation of the self. You can only do that with care, acknowledging that the self and the organization is not a two dimensional drawing, and can only be accessed through developing a story. Story is different from brand, because as Ricoeur argues (in Oneself as Another 1992) the story teller is both the subject and object, she communicates but also receives the story.

Not only that, but as MacNamara suggests, the narrator speaks to others and hears and sees how they respond and thus views both the story and the story teller. There are lots of dialogues going on there at various levels. On the face it good reputation might be based on something more than brand and more than image- openness to real dialogue. Integrity in all this is not just about doing what you say, but understanding what you say and how that might actually be embodied in practice. This suggests that reputation is not about beauty contests. It is not your place on the league that reveals you reputation but how you re- present the self in open dialogue. Your reputation is then lost, as Othello found out too late, when you stop listening, and challenging, the yourself and others.