PAUL HOLMES: Revenues might be up, but success will be short-lived if it comes at expense of workers

When The Wall Street Journal begins to worry, in print, that corporate profits are "too high," it might be time for the rest of us to pay attention to the issue.

When The Wall Street Journal begins to worry, in print, that corporate profits are "too high," it might be time for the rest of us to pay attention to the issue.

As the Journal points out, at 7.6%, after-tax corporate profits as a percentage of gross domestic product are near a 40-year high. And Isaac Shapiro and David Kamin of the Center on Budget & Policy Priorities have shown that between the first quarter of 2001 and the third quarter of this year, the portion of GDP spent on wages and salaries dropped from 49.5% to 45.4%. In other words, most of the soaring profit has come at the expense of employees and employment. But just to be clear, Journal columnist Justin Lahart was not expressing any moral anxiety. His concerns were purely pragmatic. Lahart sees two potential problems: "There comes a point - which slowing productivity growth suggests has been reached - when if a company wants to see sales keep growing it needs to put a bigger portion of its revenue into paying workers. ... Fat margins also tend to attract outside competition ... to which companies tend to respond by keeping prices of what they sell as low as possible in hopes they [can] make their nut on higher volume. Again, margins contract." My concerns are perhaps more focused on the long run. I don't believe firms can build sustainable success without managing relationships with multiple constituents. As former AT&T PR chief Dick Martin notes in his exceptional new book Tough Calls, "Companies exist to create wealth, but not solely for shareowners. Other groups contribute resources to a company's process of wealth creation and accept the associated risks. All these stakeholders should share the rewards. That requires a degree of ambidextrous leadership that does not come naturally to many business leaders." Considering the needs of those non-financial stakeholders have become unfashionable. The Business Roundtable went from taking the position that "the shareholder must receive a good return, but the legitimate concerns of other constituencies also must have appropriate attention" in 1996 to insisting in 1997 that "the notion that the board must somehow balance the interest of stockholders against the interests of other stakeholders ... is an unworkable notion." The fact that Wal-Mart - which recently invested heavily to defeat a California ballot initiative that would have forced it to pay healthcare benefits to its workers - is the US' most admired corporation (according to Fortune) shows just how far corporate opinion has swung against the stakeholder model. One of the things good PR counselors should do is point out the benefit of investing in employees, as well as paying back investors.
  • Paul Holmes has spent the past 17 years writing about the PR business for publications including PRWeek, Inside PR, and Reputation Management. He is currently president of The Holmes Group and editor of www.holmesreport.com.

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