'Just a bunch of people'? Apple seeks to define corporate values

Apple CEO Tim Cook says corporations need values, and he's an advocate of various causes. But values can also create controversy, as the divisive election season showed. How can companies formulate value systems that work for all their employees?

Beck Diefenbach/Reuters/File
Apple CEO Tim Cook speaks during an Apple media event in Cupertino, California, in October. Mr. Cook has been an active advocate on numerous civic issues, and says corporations need values too.

To Tim Cook, Apple’s support of (RED), an advocacy group that raises money and awareness in an effort to combat AIDS, is a natural outgrowth of the company’s values. But maintaining corporate inclusiveness while having a clear civic agenda may be a challenge, observers say.

On Dec. 1, on World AIDS Day, Apple will decorate 400 of its stores with (RED) signs, up from around 100 stores last year. Customers will have the opportunity to learn about the impact of AIDS across the globe while purchasing a range of red-colored products. A portion of profits from certain games and apps will be sent to the charity, which feeds into the Global Fund to fight AIDS. Even Apple Pay is involved, with the company donating $1 (up to $1 million) for each item purchased using the tool. Bank of America will match the donation for Apple Pay purchases made on its cards.

Apple sees its ongoing involvement with (RED) as part of a responsibility to protect rights, Apple CEO Tim Cook told USA Today, saying that all corporations should have values, “because people should have values. And corporations are just a bunch of people.”

But corporate values can be controversial, as events during the past year have shown. So how can companies do the most good? By finding the values that people can agree on, experts say.

“The values need to be broad and inclusive,” Jeffrey Moriarty, associate professor of philosophy and chair of the philosophy department at Bentley University in Boston, tells The Christian Science Monitor in an email, adding, “We live in a diverse world, and firms need to be respectful of that.”

According to Patrick Lencioni, who writes on business management, Jim Collins and Jerry Porras’s 1994 book "Built to Last" sparked the current drive by CEOs to establish corporate values. But in a 2002, Harvard Business Review article, Mr. Lencioni took aim at the bland values statements of many organizations, which, he wrote, “create cynical and dispirited employees, alienate customers, and undermine managerial credibility.”

Living a company’s values, by contrast, can set a company apart and inspire employees. It may discourage unethical behavior, writes Mark Schwartz, associate professor of business ethics at York University in Toronto, in an email to the Monitor. And it can bring financial benefits too.

“Some studies have shown that companies with a clear set of values financially outperform other competing companies in the long-term,” Professor Schwartz notes.

Lencioni argues these benefits come with a price. Values can “inflict pain,” making some employees feel that they don’t belong even as they place demands on everyone. 

They can be divisive, as well. Some Donald Trump supporters have chosen to boycott Oreos and Amazon. (Trump has spoken out against both Mondelez International, the parent of Oreo-maker Nabisco, because the company is moving some of its Chicago operations to Mexico, and Amazon, due to CEO Jeff Bezos's ownership of The Washington Post). Likewise, Chik-fil-A faced consumer ire for donating to groups that opposed same-sex marriage.

Mr. Cook, who has backed causes from LGBT rights to internet privacy in the past, told The Independent that Apple’s engagement with (RED) is not political – and so it might not be expected to be problematic.

“These things are about humanity,” he said.

And many people see companies’ involvement with charitable causes as a step forward from a time when they were motivated purely by the bottom line. But while Prof. Moriarty agrees that Apple has tremendous potential to do good through its charitable partnerships, he believes the limited discussion of a company’s corporate activism can be problematic.

“Who exactly is choosing corporate values – both the ends the corporation will pursue and the means to those ends?… In all likelihood, it’s Tim Cook, some other high-ranking executives, and some members of the board,” Moriarty writes.

He suggests that firms encourage all employees to weigh in on what they believe the company’s priorities should be.

After surveying employees, Schwartz recommends carrying out training and other initiatives to get the organization moving in the chosen direction. And with more people involved, companies’ direction should more closely reflect popular attitudes.

Both professors agree that most people should be able to agree on a set of values. Schwartz calls these “ethical” values, listing integrity, respect, and fairness, among others. Moriarty points to health, life, and family. Adopting these corporate values, they suggest, provides a solid foundation for responsible business, whatever political and social stances companies they choose to take. Apple’s commitment to matching employees’ charitable contributions may be one effort to support a broad range of causes.

“Business has the power to bring people together, but not if all business activity has a political aspect or element to it,” Moriarty writes.

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