NEW ORLEANS, LA — One of my favorite aspects of my career in the insurance industry is the ability to deliver a positive outcome to someone in the midst of a personally challenging situation. Whether it’s giving someone the means to provide for care when health starts to fail or a cushion to ease financial burdens after the loss of a loved one, I am a firm believer in the power of the insurance industry to be a force of good in people’s lives.
There’s a lot of social upheaval right now and a lot of room for businesses to step up and demonstrate corporate social responsibility in a way they haven’t been challenged to before. Between COVID fatigue, protests against racial injustice and an increasingly partisan political environment, ethics and social responsibility have taken root in the national consciousness in a way we haven’t seen for a long time. And that can create a difficult situation for businesses to navigate successfully.
Part of being a socially conscious business has historically been to practice a time-honored phrase from medicine: “first, do no harm.” At Brokers International, we are intentional to avoid doing anything that harms people. But socially, it seems like that principle — that it’s better to do nothing than to do something harmful — is getting pushed back against quite a bit.
It’s getting harder, as a business leader especially, to stay on the sidelines and avoid taking sides. And the question is being asked, in some cases justifiably so, if it’s better (or even right) to stay quiet rather than entering some of the challenging conversations taking place today.
Here are three ways I am trying to bring a higher level of social responsibility to the table, at Brokers International and beyond.
People First: A Conscientious COVID Response
Is it legal for me to require an employee to take and provide their temperature before they enter the office? Is it right for my business to impose restrictions and health measures that go beyond what the government requires of us? Should my company pay hourly employees during the time they need to take care of their children when schools or daycare centers are closed?
Behind these questions, there’s a deeper question being asked. Just because a company has a legal ability to do (or not do) something, is there a higher social, moral or ethical standard we should be holding business to?
At Brokers, we try to answer these questions by doing what’s right for the majority of people, the majority of the time. There’s still a lot of gray area and room for interpretation. For example, a devastating storm system recently ripped through Iowa, where Brokers International is headquartered. A lot of people lost power in their homes, but our offices weren’t affected by the outages. However, because of COVID, about 70% of our workforce is still working from home, and they weren’t able to log in and do their work.
If we’d lost power at the office, we’d pay employees for a day’s work. If it’s their choice to stay home due to coronavirus concerns, we would be well within our rights to say, “We have power here. You can either come work in the office or use a day of PTO.” But that argument barely passes the eye test. Yes, we might have the legal position to make that stand, but at what cost?
It is better to take care of your people, to provide an atmosphere where they feel safe, respected and valued, than to make some short-term overhead gains. I promise you the results will bear out in the long run.
Charitable Giving: Give the Power to the People
A lot of businesses give back to their communities, and Brokers International is no different. We like to locally reinvest, but it can be difficult to know what kind of response you might get when your support is made public. Whether internally or externally, we don’t want to alienate anyone, and we’ve developed an approach to try to address that concern.
When it comes time to make a decision about an organization or charity to support, we have BI’s employees vote on where they’d like to see that support go. There are potential issues with crowdsourcing a decision like that, and we don’t automatically support whatever cause gets the highest vote totals. The leadership team vets the choices and can override what gets voted on — we are careful about whom we support and why we support them.
Taking this approach not only ensures we get a broader perspective on worthy causes to support, it also helps our employees feel empowered in the decision-making process.
We also strive for diversity among our charities and supported organizations. If I join the Chamber or if we do any volunteer work as a company, we want those organizations to be diverse and have an impact on our community, not just our employee base. I believe it is important to give back to everyone in the community — not just the majority.
Personal Responsibility on Social Media
This applies for anyone, but especially for a business leader it is important to remember that your opinions aren’t necessarily shared by your audience. And if you are a business owner, you have to decide early on how you want to operate your business. What are your values and how strongly do you want to do business with people who share your values?
If you only want to do business with others who are politically aligned with you, that’s your decision to make. But think about the impact. Think through your advertisements and especially your comments online.
I have a connection online who posts a lot on LinkedIn. He supports the police, and he posts a number of articles reflecting that support — but some of them have been racially charged. What has really surprised me is what gets posted in the comments section of his posts. Looking at the comments, I would look at those and easily determine whom I would (or wouldn’t) do business with.
I am very conscious about social media responsibility and the things I post online. Once you post something, you can’t ever take it back. When I share an article or comment on a friend’s post, I think about how it could be perceived and how that can reflect back on me and on my company.
For every business leader, we are in an environment where everything we do and say can be placed under an increasingly high level of scrutiny. Taking a stand for something you believe in is important; just as important is the way you do it. Remember that the people on the other side of the discussion are just that: people. And if you take heat for something you say, be willing to step back, evaluate your position and offer an apology when needed.
One of my all-time favorite quotes is from John Wooden, who said, “if you’re not making mistakes, you’re not doing anything.” Failure can be the greatest teacher, if you’re willing to own it and learn from it.
Right now is a great time for us all to adopt that mentality. If you see a mistake, yours or someone else’s, be willing to learn from it. And be willing to extend grace to someone else who may be trying to learn a lesson, too.
When it comes to these issues, there’s no one right way to move forward. But as I said above, it’s no longer good enough to just “do no harm.” Instead, like we do at Brokers, take the time to see how you can do what’s right for the majority of people, the majority of the time.
I know it’s not always easy to do, so if you’d like to talk through it and see what that looks like, feel free to reach out. I love helping business leaders move forward.
Mark Williams is CEO of Brokers International.