Shouldn't the business of business be business?

US pharmacy chain CVS took the decision to stop selling tobacco in their stores, because it was at odds with their purpose to help people to better health
Barry Shannon

AN oft quoted line from Milton Friedman is: "There is one and only one social responsibility of business - to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits”, which is perhaps more snappily condensed as “the business of business is business”.

I was thinking of this while chatting with a business acquaintance earlier this week. He had been telling me about a speaker from EY (Ernst & Young) whom he watched at a recent conference he'd curated, at which they talked about ‘Building Purpose within an Organisation'.

I subsequently read some of the latest articles EY produced on the subject and found that from their surveys, it would appear that more and more companies, as a result of having to navigate an increasingly unstable economic and disruptive environment, were moving away from having a single, simple ‘satisfy the shareholder' type raison d'être, towards a more holistic idea of purpose.

More companies were placing a focus on ‘a broad, human-centred, societally engaged conception of Purpose' (EY refer to this as ‘capital P' purpose) that creates value for a wider variety of stakeholders: including staff, customers and the wider community. Stakeholders like these who demand meaningful work, inspirational brand and responsible practices.

Mulling this over, CVS (a big US pharmacy chain) quickly came to mind as an example. In 2014 they made the call to stop selling tobacco in their stores, undoubtedly costing them a lot of money. The reason they did so was because it was at odds with their purpose: ‘to help people on their path to better health'.

Accordingly, if CVS can make a bold move like that, then I suspect there are many other companies who are, as EY suggest, reviewing how they define, communicate and act in accordance with their purpose.

The question, therefore, to ask yourself is: have you considered if your current company's purpose matches your own?

The obvious accompaniment to that question is: have you discovered what your own purpose actually is; your guiding light, your North Star?

So if you wish to be involved in work that you can directly impact and where you can produce tangible results and outputs; then consider if your company allows you to take responsibility for what you do and how you work. Does it give you ownership? Does it empower you? Does it allow you to make an impact?

Do you want to work for a company that has a social conscience? A company that is green, that recycles, that cuts emissions and waste?

Is it important to you that a company gives back to the community it lives in, where its workforce lives? Do you want your company to give you time to engage in volunteering projects close to your heart; perhaps reaching out to local community groups and schools? One that encourages, promotes and engages in charitable activities?

Is it the excitement of being involved in cutting edge work that drives you? Does your company innovate and develop and change? Does it seek out the new and refuse to be tied to the past?

Do you value diversity and inclusion? Does you company also value and promote these? Does it walk the walk?

These are all important things to consider. You'll probably spend 40-plus years of your life at work and it's becoming clear that the old drivers of profit, money and status are not the be all and end all that they used to be. We now expect more from our company - and we have a right to. The business of business should be so much more these days. Don't settle for less.

:: Barry Shannon ( is HR director at Cayan in Belfast

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