On unemployment, a moral imperative for business leaders


While Wall Street reacts to S&P’s downgrade, U.S. unemployment remains above 9 percent. (Mario Tama/GETTY IMAGES)
August 9, 2011

This piece is part of a leadership roundtable on unemployment and restarting America’s jobs engine — with opinion pieces by former Treasury Secretary Paul H. O’Neill, Harvard Business School professor and author Bill George, leadership expert Katherine Tyler Scott, Wharton School professor Michael Useem, and Woodrow Wilson Center scholar Amy M. Wilkinson.

The American economy is a complex system of multiple, interdependent, moving parts; any attempt to solve the unemployment crisis without recognizing this reality will fail. Leaders, be they in business, government or the social sector, cannot afford to keep offering simplistic quick-fix ideas and pithy campaign slogans as solutions. A significant reversal of these job losses will not happen in the short term. Decades of neglecting these issues have created a situation that cannot be easily or quickly repaired.

Faith in Congress’s willingness and capacity to engage in the real work of solving the country’s unemployment problems is at a record low. There were some government and business leaders who grasped the enormity of the problem, but most ignored the signs of crisis and made profitability their only priority. Many business leaders sat on the sidelines, taking a “let you and them fight” stance instead of using their power to change the tone and terms of a vitriolic legislative debate.

Although business leaders have been speaking the language of globalization for some time, they have not explained in practical terms what this means for the economy and the domestic job market. In order to remain competitive and maximize profit, businesses sought cheap labor. Now a massive number of corporate jobs are outside of the United States. And a significant number of the jobs that are available here lack the skilled labor to fill them.

Business leaders knew that the jobs being lost were not recoverable; they knew that entrepreneurial activity and innovation would be critical to new job creation; they knew that re-education and redeployment of the workforce would be essential to future U.S. business development. Yet there was a lack of business leadership in addressing these challenges. Now, these leaders must share the responsibility of developing solutions that can bring stability and economic security to the country.

How?

They can help rebuild U.S. credibility by being the voice of reason and truth. And they can act like good corporate citizens and speak on behalf of those who have been hurt most by the economy. Rather than passively waiting and using the anxiety and uncertainty generated by Congress as an excuse for inaction, they can seize this time as an opportunity to invest in strengthening the American workforce.

Andrew Carnegie’s essay The Gospel of Wealth laid out a philanthropic obligation for business leaders when the disparity between the wealthy and the poor dramatically widened near the start of the 20th century. An update is needed for current times, but one message is still particularly relevant: business needs a social consciousness.

What might be the impact on unemployment if business leaders took this moral imperative seriously and employed American workers rather than stash their cash? What if they used their ample resources to focus attention and action on getting Americans re-employed?

The message would be clear: “We believe in America as much as we believe our companies. We need not sacrifice the future of the country or financial profitability. We have a stake in the future of the country too.” This message would give Americans the hope needed now. It would enable them to endure the sacrifices that they are making and that all of us must make.  It would let them know they are not bearing the burden alone.

Nearly 200 years ago Alexis de Tocqueville warned Americans of the danger of shutting ourselves away into the solitude of our own hearts. The current crisis has exposed this tendency, as well as the loss of shared values and diminishing sense of the common good. The death grip of the debt ceiling debate was really an argument about our descent “into the solitude of our own hearts.” What is the right balance between individualism and the common good? What are the obligations of the top 1 percent who control more than 40 percent of the wealth? In the new world of global interdependence, what values do we hold so sacred that we will not allow them to disappear into an abyss of fragmentation, incivility, insularity and insensitivity? What is so central to American character that we refuse to collude with the deepening divide between “the haves” and “the have-nots”?

Business leaders must move in from the margins, and cease using Congress’s lose/lose blame game as a rationale for their own silence and inaction. They must persist in carrying the truth to the public—that the unemployment crisis is far too complex for any one sector to solve; that rigid positions and blame keep us from solving the real problem; that this is no time to engage in political warfare; that we must live up to our best selves.

Successful business leaders know how important communicating truth, establishing trust, remaining flexible and sharing commitment are in managing company crises. Nothing less is required of their leadership now for the sake of the future of the country.

From the roundtable:

Paul O’Neill: Only presidential leadership can restart America’s engine

Bill George:Enough talk about jobs—where’s the action?

Michael Useem: Revising investor capitalism’s mantra

Katherine Tyler Scott: A moral imperative on unemployment

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