Anthony Hilton: No corporation is whiter than white

A corporation pretentious enough to adopt as a mission statement ‘Don’t be evil’ needs to be careful about the company it keeps.

In the case of Google, Bill Gates has suggested that its maxim should now read 'Don't be quite as evil as the next person'. The reaction to Google's willingness to censor its content in return for doing business in China  has caused outrage which, despite being disproportionate in the eyes of the company, is nevertheless its own fault.

It is dangerous for anyone in business to claim  the moral high ground because sooner or later ethics will collide with opportunity. To get into China, Google toned down its ethics – behaviour that is seen as a betrayal because the company has always purported to be 'different'.  The damage to its reputation would have been much more slight if it had not  raised hopes artificially high in the first place.

This, in fact, is a recurring theme. Companies,  particularly in America, do seem to be suckers for this kind of PR guff. Claims are made about the virtue inherent in an organisation – and an immediate PR dividend is reaped – with seemingly no awareness of how damaging it will be if the organisation subsequently falls short of its loudly proclaimed ideals.

I have written before about Citigroup and how its report goes on about the company needing more honesty and integrity than its rival investment banks because its size brings added responsibility. But it has been caught out  across the globe time and again – in New York over tainted research and its involvement with Enron, in Japan for repeated breach of the rules, and in Europe for trying to destabilise bond markets.

The broader lesson is that companies should be wary of making any claims around corporate social responsibility that appear to dilute their commitment to profit maximisation, because  in doing so they run the same risk as Google in setting standards to which they then cannot adhere. Companies should behave responsibly,   and one hopes they do indeed have an internal guideline to avoid 'being evil'. What they should not do is shout it from the rooftops in a bid for superiority. Virtue has to be its own reward.

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