Mandate Altruism from Executives

Corporations should require their senior leaders to take sabbaticals to give back to the community. Pro or con?

Pro: A Mutually Beneficial Obligation

Only 16% of U.S. companies have formal unpaid sabbatical programs, and 5% offer paid sabbaticals, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

At a time when experiential diversity is as crucial as professional experience, we cannot ignore the impact sabbaticals can make in terms of developing leadership and a culture of values and creativity.

When Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit in August and September 2005, I was president and CEO of GAF Materials. Like most other Americans, I felt deeply affected by these natural disasters. When presented with an opportunity by Habitat for Humanity International to help Gulf Coast families recover, I took a six-month leave of absence to co-head the group’s Operation Home Delivery.

We implemented “Home in a Box,” panelized wall units used to rebuild on a large scale just days after the disasters. Each panelized home was funded by donations, built by volunteers like me, and then shipped from around the nation to the Gulf Coast.

This experience gave me a greater appreciation of the complementary and intersecting effect that private, nonprofit, and public-sector actions can have on the community and business. It also instilled in me new perspectives on organizational leadership and teamwork, far more than years of formal education and business-as-usual activity in private industry did. The tremendous amount of teamwork and collaborative sharing of skills accounted for Habitat’s progression from building fewer than 50 homes a year in the Gulf Coast to more than 1,000 within two years of the hurricanes.

My time in the Gulf Coast also led to a network of friends and contacts I tap into weekly. Moreover, the Habitat experience made me see the need and opportunity for investment in sustainable community and building systems, where environmental considerations are aided by the use of recycled aluminum, water, and plastics as well as new and innovative products such as mercury-free, energy-saving LED lighting and low-cost solar panels.

My interest in exploring sustainable products further led me to Pegasus Capital Advisors, a private equity firm committed to investing in and fostering innovative, profitable sustainability-focused companies.

Con: Nothing to Atone For

Contrary to this debate’s basic premise, a corporation’s success does not generate any moral debt to the community. For that reason, it would be improper and immoral to mandate sabbaticals, as if this or that method of penance could suitably expiate a nonexistent sin.

Corporations are profit-making enterprises: Their sole purpose is to make money for their shareholders. For a corporation’s managers to undercut that mission, as this proposal asks them to do, would be wrong and a violation of their responsibility to shareholders.

Profit-making is virtue, not vice. Productive businesses deserve the money they earn. Their wealth is created, not taken from those who didn’t produce it, so there exists nothing to “give back.” Those companies’ leaders are morally entitled to take unapologetic credit for their own efforts and the resulting achievements.

And yet, our culture views profit as distasteful and offensive, a cause for apology and repentance. Productive businesspeople have been told they must wash off the moral stain of profit-seeking through community service, as by manning soup kitchens in the slums or digging latrines in Africa.

We should stop and challenge the morality of all demands that corporations must atone for their wealth and success. Defiant rejection is the proper response to any suggestion that business leaders accept the moral status of criminals who must discharge their debts to society through community service.

Yes, there’s a moral debt involved, but it runs the opposite way. It’s each individual’s obligation to recognize that profit-seeking is a virtue, and to acknowledge it publicly as such. Such moral support costs nothing, but its value for promoting justice is inestimable.

Why should companies dishonor their own executives by treating them as moral deadbeats? Demands that corporations “give back to the community” have nothing to do with charity or goodwill. They are pure guilt-mongering. Businesses should condemn and reject any suggestion that senior leaders be saddled with mandatory sabbaticals for community service.

Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies. Opinions and conclusions expressed in the BusinessWeek Debate Room do not necessarily reflect the views of BusinessWeek, BusinessWeek.com, or The McGraw-Hill Companies.

Reader Comments

Sue Doe-Nim

Oh puh-leez. If my husband left his office for six months, they'd replace him.

And they should.

People really think they're more specialer than they are.

(And yes, the crappy grammar is purposeful).

Ajmal

What about people who engage in unethical behavior? What about favoritism within the corporation? Aren't these all sins? Don't most executives engage in these kind of activities?

Rob

Well said Yaron.

Joseph Kellard

Thank you, BusinessWeek, for giving Dr. Yaron Brook of the Ayn Rand Institute the opportunity to express his moral views on the issue of businesses giving their executives sabbaticals in order to "give back to the community." Brook’s is a unique and refreshing view because Ayn Rand, in her books The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged,, offered to others an unprecedented, radical new morality of rational selfishness. For details, your readers should certainly read those novels and her non-fiction work. They certainly changed my life for the better, in that, in part, I don't spend a split second giving back to my community, but instead focus on pursuing my own rational self-interest.

Amy

Yaron Brook, again, is right on target. This is a moral issue, not a feelings issue. Just because Mr. [Collins] feels what he has done is right for himself, does not mean that service to community is a "moral obligation" on the part of all business executives or anyone else for that matter. One person's choice to be charitable should never be forced on others--morally or literally.

Profit-making businesspeople should be honored for their ability and creativity. If they were not out there every day working, inventing, organizing, and selling, our civilization would crumble. (So please, Ajmal, don't assume that people are inherently corrupt and unethical. Most Americans, including executives, are honest and decent people. Be grateful.)

It's enough that profit-makers do their jobs very well and work very hard, without others piling guilt-ridden duties on top of their backs. These people are not your, or your pet charity's, slaves. They are individuals, and individuals have rights -- especially to pursue happiness, money, and property.

Robert Nasir

Kudos to Yaron Brook and the Ayn Rand Institute for championing the supreme value of an individual's right to live the best life possible.

For ya'll who've been spiritually beaten into submission, into thinking you're in hock to everyone who's got one scrap less than you (and resentful toward anyone who's got more), time to rethink your moral code. As Ayn Rand often said, "Check your premises."

Fortunately, ARI's Web site has all sorts of great (and free) stuff to start you on the road to spiritual recovery.

ragnar_rahl

What about people who engage in unethical behavior? What about favoritism within the corporation? Aren't these all sins? Don't most executives engage in these kind of activities?

Favoritism would only be problematic if it actually harmed the company's profits--and it can be expiated only by generating more profit, not giving your time away to people who have nothing to do with it. And what "unethical behavior?" Of course "unethical behavior" is sin; they're synonyms. But what behavior is unethical that you are claiming "most" executives engage in? And why should those who don't pay for those who do? A mandate tends to imply universality.

random

It's generally not a good idea to force someone to be altruistic. The whole point of giving back to any community is to do it because you want to, because it fits with your personal view of what you should do with your resources. Forced volunteer work is likely to be treated like a nuisance job and won't accomplish much. Forced donations will probably be small and receive poor management and implementation as the giver doesn't care what actually happens to the money.

But on the other hand, the Randian dogma has its own downsides. In societies where the view that people should only focus on their own personal interest and those around them don't matter unless they have something useful to offer in return, are breeding nests for organized crime. In Russia, Ukraine, Kazakhstan, Nigeria and the Balkans, those who make a lot of money not only commit morally questionable acts in order to create profit for the organizations they run, they also hoard the money for themselves. Charity is dead in those places, and so the underprivileged take to guns and knives and view such things as dealing drugs, forcing women into prostitution, selling weapons to rogue states, and smuggling caviar, gold, silver, and cigarettes as simple means of survival. They're certainly not being given jobs by the tiny group of the extremely wealthy who consider it beneath them to give jobs or pay money to anyone outside of their personal circle of friends.

Let's be honest and call their "rational self interest" what it really is--selfishness and greed. In societies where selfishness and greed have taken over, it has resulted in an economy-capsizing income gap, crime, and a malaise of corruption. Just try to get anywhere in the countries I named without a bribe. Can't be done unless you're friends with a powerful tycoon or the president of the nation. These nations also have a sociological name. They're called kleptocracies, and they're inherently unstable, lack good or decent rule of law, and how much money you have decides everything, even how fast police will come to your house if you're in trouble.

The U.S. and Europe have struck a good balance between self-gain and charity. We encourage profit and self gain, but we also encourage charity and think about those who are less fortunate, those who need a hand and like to define our legacy by giving to others. I don't think there's a need to force people to be charitable rather than follow good examples, and in contrast, telling people to only care about themselves and that the notion of giving back is somehow silly and comes from collectivist control freaks isn't going to end well if recent history is any measure. I wonder what Ayn Rand would have hated more today, the dictatorial Soviet state or the modern Russian kleptocracy?

Henry L. Solomon

Mr. Collins had a positive experience and found lasting value in his charitable work with the hurricane disaster relief efforts, but by what right does he claim it is proper to obligate others to his views in a free society? This view is morally wrong since it violates an individual's right to pursue his own life and happiness. The obligation he seeks to impose can only lead to a series of more and more imposed obligations, as a logical consequence of the same mistaken moral principle of service to others, that has only one end: the total enslavement of all productive individuals to the perceived "needs" of collective society. As far as "giving back" is concerned, it is a strange concept since it is the productive, profit-seeking, moral members of society who provide it with the enormous wealth that can only then be appropriated by the immoral exploiters of virtue. If charity is not voluntary, we are not free.

Ed Thompson

The term "giving back to the community" is a package deal intended to obfuscate a perversion of morality. Employers (stockholders) and employees alike are fleeced throughout their lifetimes via taxation to support the community's flagrant lifestyle. It takes a village, committed to collectivism and with the force of law, to do that. It is the community that should give back, or at least mitigate the damage by eliminating programs and cutting taxes. Charity is fine (Brook's organization is a charity). But altruism (literally "other-ism") means sacrifice, and to sacrifice at the point of a gun is immoral. That's what "giving back" is intended to hide. For an exposition on ethics, I recommend Ayn Rand's The Virtue of Selfishness.

Ken Landin

Ayn Rand would have rejected both Communist Russia and the deteriorating mixed-economy of Russia today, in favor of laissez-faire capitalism, the only economic system based on respect for individual rights.

Lawrence

If anyone should be "giving back," it should be the "takers," i.e., the recipients of the many welfare-state programs financed by the taxpayers.

James Bronson

The basic premise behind the question is that corporations have somehow "taken something," so they should "give back to the community." What most people fail to realize is that corporations have already contributed a great deal to society by providing valuable goods and services that millions of people voluntarily purchase every single day.

Consider that in a market-driven society like the United States, companies do not become successful by defrauding their customers; the most successful companies are those that provide the best goods and services at the most competitive prices to the largest number of people.

Individuals in society benefit because they have goods and services available for purchase that they otherwise could not obtain. Corporations benefit through profit. This is a win-win exchange whose success in creating wealthy societies is unparalleled in history. It requires no "moral redemption" on the part of service providers. Quite the contrary: Successful businesses are doing their customers a great service.

Ed Locke

The idea that business executives, who create the goods and services that make life on earth possible, should be penalized by being forced to do community service is almost too evil to be discussed in a civilized society. Let those who worship sacrifice go and sacrifice themselves, and leave moral, productive people alone.

Brian

Businessweek should give 30% of its publishing space to nonprofits to atone for its profit motive and the killing of trees. Debate.

Gregory P Turza

The people who should "give back" are the ones who took something that doesn't belong to them. By this standard, the American corporations have a lot coming to them.

Robert

Dr. Brook is right on target with this one. Companies should be lauded for their productivity and wealth, not derogated. To suggest that anyone--CEO or otherwise--somehow "owes" something to everyone at large is wrong.

Rob

Dr. Brook for president, please. Pretty please with sugar on top.

I know...he wasn't born here. Not that he would run if he was.

I am just happy that there are still strong voices of reason out there to keep the idiots from enslaving us all.

BILL

I take issue with the idea of "unpaid" sabbaticals for corporate executives. This is the same tripe about corporate responsibility that has raised its ugly head in this election year. In a democratic society, we do not redistribute wealth/corporate knowledge simply at the whim of cultural norms. Expertise is a commodity people are willing to pay for. CEOs make the money they do because they get results and their experience and skills are of extremely high value to the companies they lead. We are not a nation of "You should," but rather "I will," which indicates our free choices in a capitalist economy. It is not government's or society's role to determine who gets paid for what or who gives what. The free market decides that. If someone is willing to offer service or expertise free of charge, that is his decision. This is a step toward the socialist policies that unfortunately, both Presidential candidates are advocating.

Simon Thorbjørnsen

"Random" seems to confuse gross irrationality with selfishness. The failed countries he mentioned are far from examples of rational self interest but rather prime example of what happens when people abandon their minds. The tribal attitude he so rightly blames has very little to do with self interest. These societies are not fit to live in, and that is in no one's interest.

random

"Random seems to confuse gross irrationality with selfishness. The failed countries he mentioned are far from examples of rational self interest but rather prime example of what happens when people abandon their minds."

There is nothing irrational with the countries I mentioned. In fact, a fully fledged kleptocracy is a perfectly rational result for a society that embraces greed and ownership, not as the means to an end, but as ends in and of themselves. When people refuse to pay taxes or obey laws they believe violate their right to maximum profit, the society falls apart. Nobody pays for police, firefighters, military, or infrastructure and all aspects of society become for sale to the highest bidder.

In the regimes I mentioned, only the rich build roads, hospitals, and highways and create security and police forces because they need them and are the only ones who can afford them. Those who are not as rich or are downright poor have to live in deteriorating conditions and decide to start turning to crime as there's no longer a rule of law for any other segment of society than the rich who can afford to pay police salaries. They go after the rich who begin firing employees by the hundreds in order to protect themselves from moles and spies who will be out to get their money.

The many out of work and the former soldiers who are no longer being paid to protect their nation (no real tax collection, remember?) team up to create either security services for the rich or Mafia. Police and judges whose salaries are paid by the wealthy begin taking graft and changing laws to suit whoever they need to suit at the moment. And so, a kleptocracy s born.

You cannot have a country without taxes and without social safety nets. As I described above, drawing from the recent history of countries in West Africa, Eastern Europe, and the Balkans, these countries simply collapse and are sold bit by bit to organized crime groups and the wealthy. I've lived in Eastern Europe for many years, and I've seen firsthand how much trouble greed can cause when it's used solely to fatten wallets by any means, especially tax evasion.

Hey, I'm all for profit, capitalism, and freedom of choice. But not tax evasion and all-consuming greed, especially when they're preached like religious dogma. And no, I don't need an advertisement for one of Ayn Rand's tomes. I've read her work, and I'm not a fan of her writing style. Too much lecturing, too many tirades, and she seems incapable of allowing a reader to make up his or her mind, insisting on dictating every last thought that should be in the reader's head with six-page monologues. I recommend Plato instead.

RacerX

I'd have to agree with the con argument. I believe a company that's "successful," at least in an ethical way, is likely to contribute more to the greater good than one person dedicating time to what seems to me at least, "feel-good" socialist-feeling remedies, i.e., so you build people a house but don't teach them how to "live" effectively, thereby not hitting the root cause.

And while I have respect for HfH, I never seem to see the actual homeowners working on their own house. Seems like a perpetuation of the welfare state.

My $.02.

Jeff Montgomery

I agree 100% with Dr. Brook: Company executives have nothing to atone for, and I find the suggestion that they need to "give back" to be offensive.

This is just more of the altruist clarion call to sacrifice that is vying to push our world back into the Dark Ages. Executives are paid for their services and the only sense in which they can be regarded as falling short would be job performance, a matter that is entirely between them and whoever pays them. Corporations earn their keep by providing services for pay, and by its very definition that commercial transaction is morally just and complete. If someone pays for a good or service, there is no further debt incurred; it is payment in full because the customer agreed to it. There is no other "debt to society." That is just vicious nonsense used as a justification by authoritarian governments to rule over us. Kick it to the curb.

BIGWEEDS

I believe that many of these folks do not have a clue about the real world. They eat and exercise in company-owned facilities, and they most likely belong to a private golf club or live in a private gated community. I believe that they would gain from the experience and who knows, maybe they would consider taking a pay cut that would leave a few more bucks that would allow their employees to get a little more in their pay envelope.

Brian H

As implied in Collins' statement, there are plenty of feedback loops that end up "paying" the company for such efforts. But the unpaid bit is only for those who can afford that.

This idea is one of many needed to combat the effects of the "corporation as legal person" distortion.

And the Randians needn't get too exercised about the word "altruism." Most of the execs will a) enjoy it greatly, and b) form links with the wider community with significant direct and indirect payoffs.

They should also guard against having their rhetoric and terminology high jacked by the 5-plus% of the population with sociopathic tendencies, who are strongly drawn to positions of authority and can experience enjoyment out of very little except manipulation and self-aggrandizement.

Sandra

The idea that altruism can be legislated is futile if not laughable. If one is not taught the value of service to others at an early age, it becomes harder and harder for one to accept it as a personal goal.

This is why so many are arguing for quality early childhood education at a time when the values attributed to being really human should be taught and practiced. The current fascination with teaching small children to read and write has destroyed the real goal of early education--the formation of humanity in the young.

Peter Griffin

The reason that one does charity work is the same reason one pees in the pool: because it feels good. Otherwise, why do it?

Abbie Kendall

Corporations forcing their senior leaders to be altruistic? Mmm...no.

Instead, let's require the teaching of capitalism in grades one through 12 and the reading of Atlas Shrugged as a requirement for earning a high school diploma.

Those actions would result in tremendous contributions to American society.

Phoenix

I think that every morning, the CEO and the rest of management should sit and listen to just a few words and ponder their meaning. Do not step on anyone in order to further your own interests. Five minutes of meditation should do it.

S Insaf

I agree with Dr. Brook.

It was fascinating to read the comments on both sides. The hatred people feel for the CEOs is palpable. In a free society, if you think CEOs make easy money, you are free to acquire the expertise and try your hand at it. There is no need for such jealousy and hatred.

If you are not doing very well, it is not the fault of the CEO. Mexicans come here with nothing and establish businesses and make money. In this land of opportunity, only the lack of will can explain starvation. It takes $5 dollars--hourly pay--to buy a meal. Americans have it so easy. Blame yourself if you are not wealthy, not some CEO.

FH

I agree 100% with Dr. Brook.

Not only is he right, but also with articles like this he gives spiritual fuel to people who strive to live the best life possible for themselves. His uncompromising stance is truly an act of justice.

elmas

"What about people who engage in unethical behavior? What about favoritism within the corporation? Aren't these all sins? Don't most executives engage in these kind of activities?"

I'm not sure what this comment has anything to do with the actual theme of the debate, but if there's favoritism and unethical behavior within the corporation, it is up to the corporation (not society or anyone else) to resolve those issues if and when they exist.

Richard Watts

I agree with Yaron.

For the most part, I agree with Bill's comment (June 27). However, I strongly disagree with Bill's statement, "In a democratic society, we do not redistribute wealth/corporate knowledge simply at the whim of cultural norms."

Oh yes, a democratic society does redistribute wealth at the whim of cultural norms. Bill seems to confuse capitalism and freedom with democracy. But capitalism is the system in which the individual's rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness are protected. Democracy is mob rule, the system in which the individual's rights are trampled at the whim of whoever is in the majority of voters on a given issue.

Fortunately, America is not a democracy, but a constitutional republic, founded on the moral principle that the individual owns his life by right. One's efforts are properly spent in pursuit of his own happiness. The community has no rightful claim to any of the time that the individual's life is made of.

There is nothing to "give back." No one's life ever was the rightful property of others.

Sam Tenney

Collins is an instance of one of our culture's most shameful products: the productive man who spits in his own face.

He feels compelled to atone for his ability to bring values into existence, in the name of all of that which would have watched millennia pass by in utter stagnation: the incompetent (the community) and the dead earth (the environment).

Successful businessmen are heroes that deserve our profound gratitude. Thank you, Dr. Brook, for defending them as they rightfully should be defended.

Carl Svanberg

Yaron Brook is right. The CEOs and businesses have a moral right to their salaries and profits, because they've earned them through hard, productive work. They've created the wealth, so they are the only rightful owners of the wealth. Thus they do not owe society anything. There is nothing to "give back," but the unearned, which only goes to show how unjust this proposal is.

As the Declaration of Independence says, and in fact the very the demands of human life itself requires, every individual has a moral and political right to pursue his own life and happiness. That also includes American businessmen. To claim that American businessmen have something to "give back" is to imply that they and their success somehow were the "product of society." This idea is nothing but pure and utter collectivism and thus totally un-American.

To say that American businessmen need to "give back" to society because they've achieved something, is to say that they do not have a right to life, but merely a permission to live granted by society and that they have to earn their permit to pursue their own life and happiness, through self-sacrificial efforts.

The real problem with America and the world today is not that the businessmen get what they deserve through their hard productive work, but instead that there are too many regulations and taxes that make wealth creation hard, not only for the businessmen, but also for everyone else.

What the poor need is self-sacrifice on the part of the businessmen, but more of the same freedom that the businessmen need to function properly. That is: in order to think and create. In other words, what the poor people need is more capitalism. As a simple example, just think of all those who are unable to get a job due to minimum wage laws.

The morality of self-sacrifice is evil. It is evil because it demands that people should give up everything that makes their life and happiness possible. After all, to pursue your own life and rational happiness, while at the same time leaving everybody else free to do the same, is indeed very selfish.

To sacrifice your values, the thing you love and hold dear, that which makes your life and happiness possible, is to commit a slow suicide. Yet that slow, painful path to suicide, is the only basic alternative to choosing life. If you instead choose life, then a life of pursuing rational life-affirming values, to achieve your goals and dreams will be possible. That is to say: If life and happiness are what you want--if you truly love your life, then selfishness (rational selfishness) is not only "prudent," "smart," and practical, but also a moral virtue. And if you want to know more about this issue, I refer you to Ayn Rand's literature, in particular The Virtue of Selfishness.

Tracy

Um, Mr. Collins, I think you seriously need to seek mental help. You have obviously done some unethical things to make your money and now you feel guilty for it, so you are trying to buy redemption. What real executive would take six months off from work to hammer nails into boards? You are like a philanderer I know who hands out church cards, then laughs and says he has a lot to make up for with the Lord.

You should be ashamed of yourself, not just for whatever it is that you have done, but for trying to take everyone else down with you. Why should everyone else have to pay just so you can feel all nice and comfy about yourself? No one owes you anything. As a mutual fund and stock owner, I want company executives looking out for me, people like your opponent Mr. Yaron. I don't want anything to do with people like you. You probably use all this "green" nonsense you are doing now to defraud investors and pocket money for yourself. I can't imagine how it could ever be profitable (but I guess with gubmit handing out my tax dollars for these programs, anything is possible).

john

It always amazes me when a person thinks that the world or someone owes them something for just being. Being born into this life does not come with any guarantees. Looters need to get a life and accept responsibility for their own lives, and quit trying to suck the life out of people who stand up and face the reality of life.

Confused and Concerned

I didn't read Mr. Collins' comments as pro mandatory altruism, but rather that the experience led to the enhancement of his company's interest while helping to galvanize a relief organization. Maybe the editor of this piece put it together wrong and titled the article after it was written. No one can or should be required to give back to their communities--that just doesn't make sense. I am not sure that is what is being said in the pro words. Reread?

Lukhanyo

I ayalws thought it wasThe left: Your life belongs to us. The right: Your life belongs to our imaginary gods. Ayn Rand: Your life belongs to you. Her

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