City City Bang Bang, Columns

The deafness of corporations

Dragging a paying passenger off the plane violently enough for him to have a concussion and a broken nose marks a new low in customer service, going even by the lax standards that many airlines employ. Enough has been said about the horrific nature of this incident, and for once, all the outrage expressed is still insufficient. The deeper question it raises concerns corporations and the latitude that they seem to enjoy in their interactions with society. What makes it possible for a private corporation like United to even think that this was a legitimate option?

The attack on a paying passenger was bad enough but the letter that followed from the CEO of United was revelatory of a much deeper, and altogether more pernicious problem.  The CEO displayed a complete disconnect with reality, and seemed to have no way of grasping what was so wrong about what his company did. It was, like it always is, a management problem, a situation that needed handling. From his perspective, what was needed was a calculated, calibrated and cunningly constructed response that above all tried to safeguard the company’s interests. There was no place for an instinctive human response.

Corporate leaders are the most powerful people in the world. Now, this may seem to be the kind of hyperbole corporate leaders are capable of, but in one very important sense, this is true. While clearly there are many other kinds of leaders that are more powerful in terms what they can make happen, there are few that have the unchallenged absoluteness of power that business leaders enjoy. Any democratically elected politician faces questions and criticism, from the opposition and the media, needs to address press conferences that are not scripted- none of which are true in the case of corporate leaders. Even media is relatively kind when it comes to putting them under scrutiny, for reasons that are not difficult to guess. The corporation is one place where dissent in any meaningful sense is rarely tolerated. Questions can be asked up to a point, after which everyone has to ‘get on board’.

In personal life, it is possible that the CEO of United is a regular guy with all human feelings intact. But there is something about the corporation as a structure that makes our humanity irrelevant unless we try really hard to resist its invisible pull. The abstract and disconnected nature of corporate objectives and its artificially constructed internal mechanisms makes it unable to react in a human or social way. Corporations are impersonal man-made structures that to a large extent, enjoy immunity from society and its obligations. They can choose to display humanity, and often do so if it serves their interests.

In a real sense, the corporation is not really accountable to anyone. Of course, there are governance structures that have been put in place- boards are meant to provide oversight, internal committee vet decisions, ‘processes’ are everywhere that try and make all decisions from a billion dollar investment to buying knobs for one’s work desk feel important and scientific, but these mask the fact that accountability to a few large institutional shareholders or to highly scattered bunch of shareholders very often effectively means that the idea of being held accountable is largely an abstract one. In any case, even where accountability exists, the shareholders’ interests are markedly narrow. Keep shareholders happy, stay within the law and the corporation is by and large, fine.

Structurally corporations are by design, amoral organisms. While traditionally business was an inextricable part of society, the corporation strives to separate the people who work there from the lives that they otherwise lead. When we talk of a work-life balance, we are implicitly admitting that the former is not part of the latter. Driven by simple motivations, answerable to a largely mythical collective called the shareholders, the corporation chases numerical goals- this is its only real engine; everything else- the guff about care and values is an overlay. They don’t really care, largely because they are designed not to. Those that do, do so by exception. And even they cannot resist the temptation of constantly pointing out their greatness to us.

For a corporation to be sensitive and caring and human, it would need to constantly struggle with itself and fight the mechanism that drives it. It would need to be at war against its more natural self, and be ever vigilant for any laxity on its part would see it veering back to its natural amoral course.

It is interesting as to how easily we have come to accept that a corporation has the right to inflict pain on its employees in the name of its own often arbitrary goals. Thousands can lose their job, not because of anything they did wrong but because either the management that is taking this action erred, or something happened in another part of the world, which led to people being sacked somewhere else. We see these as necessary parts of doing business, and in the system that has got constructed they are. But in human terms, this is power of an extraordinary kind. For a society to be built on such a callous and transactional view of livelihoods is strange.

Today, there is, as shown in the cases of United, a way to challenge the corporation. Thanks to social media, for the first time, we find that corporations are under real scrutiny. The ability to spin their way out of trouble using a largely pliant media is no longer available with quite the same ease.

Corporations will have to change and find more fundamental answers. We need to ask tougher questions- of not just individual corporations, but of the very idea of corporations. We need to find a way to make them an integral part of society- rather than act as a fringe player with elective responsibility. Some changes can already be seen, although last week we could be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

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