When Paul O’Neil became CEO of Alcoa, he told the workforce that he would negotiate with them on anything except their safety. In stating this, he was creating a link between employee safety and a culture of corporate ethics.
This link had a dual benefit. One, safety became the lens through which every process and system could be measured. The result, workplace accidents went down and profits soared. Second, O’Neil may have considered it ethically wrong that a worker should ever worry about their personal safety. However, he also made it a strategic priority within his business model.
Is There Really a Conflict Between Ethics and Performance?
I frequently hear researchers, and pundits talking about the high moral value of taking care of the workforce. It is a good argument, but it creates too much of an either or proposition. Business is either ethical, or they are profitable, but not both.
However, during O’Neil’s tenure as CEO, the market valuation of Alcoa surged from $3 billion to $27.5 billion, and net income rose from $200 million to $1.5 billion, while also making Alcoa one of the safest places to work in America. When Paul retired, it was safer to work in an Alcoa foundry with 2000 (F) liquid aluminum flowing around than in the back office of an insurance company shuffling paper. O’Neil demonstrates there is no conflict between caring for the workforce and economic returns. However, there is another lesson that we can learn from O’Neil. High levels of employee engagement not only generates a culture of corporate ethics, but strong economic returns as well.
Corporate Ethics and Employee Engagement
Now let’s talk about another kind of morality—the ethics of employee engagement. In twenty-five years of consulting, I have never met one worker who was excited about going to work every day for a mediocre organization. Yet, I have met many leaders who were just fine with average. When leaders accept mediocre as acceptable, they force it onto their workforce. They rob them of the opportunity of being on a championship-caliber team. I have come to the conclusion that it is abusive to a workforce to accept mediocrity when they are craving to be proud of where they work. However, I have seen organizations intentionally engage every member of the workforce around a singular common value. It might be respect, relationship, service, safety and even love. In these rare organizations, not only do they get the best out of their workforce, but they lay the foundation for humans to flourish.