When the US Supreme Court supported Hobby Lobby’s right to extend the religious beliefs of its management into corporate governance, it caused a rather predictable outrage. As a matter of fact, I am not quite sure why it did – the concept of corporate personhood that states that a corporation as a group of people may be recognized as having some of the same legal rights as an individual, is old; about 50 years older than the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution that seems to have legally cemented the matter almost 150 years ago. I guess, some felt that since the world has evolved in the last century-and-a-half, some of its legal constructs should follow suit; after all, if laws didn’t change, we would still be burning people on sticks just to feel better about being enslaved by royalty.
We fail to explain to our clients that people are generally not fond of liars and many corporations come across as dangerously schizophrenic.
At the risk of sounding overly self important, I believe branding to be partly responsible for the fact that corporate personhood is, to quote John Oliver, “still a thing”. We instill brands with anthropomorphic qualities, ensuring they have values and that those values reflect the expectations of target audiences. We make brands claim honesty, boldness, reliability, generosity and so forth. The problem is that, in most cases, we fail to explain to our clients that people are generally not fond of liars and many corporations come across as dangerously schizophrenic.
We can advise our clients to stop claiming nonsensical platitudes to appeal to masses, who either don’t care or don’t understand the stupidity of those promises.
McDonalds claims “commitment to its people” and promises “an environment that fosters respect.” That from a company that refuses to increase the minimum wage of its employees to bearable levels. “At GM, corporate responsibility starts with our Core Values, especially the values of Integrity and Individual Respect and Responsibility.” Integrity, Individual Respect and Responsibility; even capitalized for greater impact. That from a car manufacturer that went out of its way to conceal information about a faulty ignition switch, while selling more of the cars that had it. Now the respectful and responsible managers with integrity do everything to minimize compensations for over 50 deaths and many more injuries. I don’t mean to single those two companies out; they represent a fairly common hypocrisy of corporate values that are pleasant to read as long as one doesn’t know anything about the company in question.
Overturning corporate personhood may take a while, but insincere businesses will not survive to see that day.
So, what do we do? For once, we can advise our clients to stop claiming nonsensical platitudes to appeal to masses, who either don’t care or don’t understand the stupidity of those promises. Hobby Lobby’s first commitment is to “Honor the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.” Really? Some “biblical principles” are pretty controversial, some, by today’s norms – plain illegal.
Secondly, once the values have been proclaimed, companies should remember that in an age when people spend most of their time online, claiming to be a Prince Charming and acting like a total dick will backfire even more than if you honestly claimed dickishness as your core value. Overturning corporate personhood may take a while, but insincere businesses will not survive to see that day.