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Trust is the Issue

Of all the polls we take of our readers, CE’s corporate reputation survey generates the most interest outside the magazine. …

Of all the polls we take of our readers, CE’s corporate reputation survey generates the most interest outside the magazine. Last year, survey findings appeared in such news sources as the Orange County Register and the Hartford Courant. Sure, business leaders are keenly interested in reputation; it’s their job to worry about such things. But why would anyone else care? While the subject doesn’t exactly push USC football off the front pages, people everywhere seem concerned about the moral and ethical dimension of their institutions, business included.

Nor is this confined to the U.S. Recently London’s Daily Telegraph published a widely watched feature on the 100 best firms to work for in Great Britain. In fact, U.S. firms Cisco and Microsoft topped the list and others, such as IBM and Citibank, had respectable showings. American firms’ standing, however, is beside the point. What is clear is that firms everywhere realize that nurturing employees and solid customer relations matter-and contribute to one’s overall reputation. As more firms go global, the import of reputation will continue to grow.

This poses a challenge to CEOs. In an increasingly cynical age, how do you develop and protect your company’s reputation? Should you bother? A recent New York Times Magazine story called attention to the growing American habit of litigating everyday disputes, however trivial, which formerly were resolved directly between parties themselves. When people cease to share a common set of values they look to the courts to resolve even the most garden variety tiffs. But what happens, asked the Times, when people start to lose faith in the courts as well?

Cynicism about institutions is not confined to one region. Presidents in both the U.S. and the Philippines faced impeachment as a result of alleged wrong doing, although only one was forced from office because of it. And two years ago EU President Jacques Santer, and 20 of his colleagues in the EC were forced to step down over improprieties.

France is reeling from daily revelations about bribery and corruption scandals. The Dumas Affair involving mistresses and payments to ministers at the highest levels of government extends back to Francois Mitterrand’s presidency. Former German chancellor Helmut Kohl has yet to be forthcoming about his personal and party finances, and foreign minister Joschka Fischer was taken to task about his past activities as a political agitator.

Britain‘s minister for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson, was recently forced to resign-for the second time-for lying about favors granted while he was a government minister. This comes as a personal setback for PM Tony Blair and raises questions about how Labour will fare in the coming general election. It may not be too much of a stretch to assert that people might look to business institutions to provide a measure of ethical certainty if not moral leadership.

Let’s face it. People sense a moral vacuum, and are not reassured by political leadership. In an age when there appear to be fewer social guard rails defining acceptable social behavior, people grasp at anything. In this environment CEOs must rethink their social standings and corporate reputations and how to secure them. This is both an opportunity and a challenge to business leaders everywhere.

About J.P. Donlon

J.P. Donlon
J.P. Donlon is Editor Emeritus of Chief Executive magazine.