Why cancel culture is reframing the role of business ethics

The ethical judgement of a business has always been important in guiding its approaches and shaping the perceptions of the people who engage with it, be that employees, customers or communities. However, in recent times, ethics has been pushed to the forefront of corporate and communications strategies to combat the rise of cancel or call-out culture.

cancel culture on a pencil erasing human drawings

So, what is cancel culture and how is it impacting the role of ethics in business?

Traditionally, when something gets cancelled it goes away. But when it comes to brands or businesses, there’s significant risk in today’s digital society that consumers will withdraw support – for products, practices, people or entities at large. The reasons for a withdrawal can be diverse but typically relate to a brand or product saying or doing something deemed to be objectionable or offensive. As consumers become more aware of the ethical nature of the organisations they interact with, they are also more likely to be vocal about bad players in the market by voting with their feet or their fingers – sharing negative feelings online for all to see and read indefinitely.

With the decentralisation of news sources and surging social media use, a misstep can have swift consequences. At the same time, this impulse to publicly share perspectives can lead to favourable outcomes for those seen to be doing the right thing. In fact, companies known to be ethically responsible have a greater ability to attract, recruit and retain capable people.

With this in mind, what should brands and business leaders be aware of when including ethics in their business strategy in order to maintain perception and productivity?

Nurturing an ethical culture sets the scene for success

Honest mistakes are likely to occur throughout the business journey and are often crucial steppingstones to success if you’re able to learn, respond accordingly and evolve. However, it is important to also foster a collective ethical culture that goes beyond individual compliance. Nurturing this type of environment will ensure a workforce acts ethically in the interests of the broader business mission or when responding to particular community concerns. Setting these expectations and values early on, as well as showcasing positive examples from the top down, will support long-term success.

Transparency helps meet consumer, customer and community standards

Consumers, workers (present and potential) and partners, as well as media and regulatory entities, have access to greater amounts of information on companies and economies than ever before. Accordingly, most of today’s business community are becoming more transparent when it comes to what they do, why they do it and how they go about it.

The ability to ignore, hide, alter or deny the truth of who a business is and how it acts is no longer an option. Today, this type of behaviour goes beyond temporary negative sentiment and reputational damage, all the way to the bottom line. Despite the allure of power or profit still seeing some favouring a subtle operation, it is clear that the community is calling for increased transparency and accountability from organisations. At the end of the day, clear and ethical decision-making builds trust and will pay dividends for customer satisfaction and demand.

Don’t just shout for anything, stand for something

Publicly addressing an issue or supporting a cause can build credibility to the voice behind a brand or organisation. At the same time, it is important to ensure the message is genuine and that the subject matter authentically aligns to the belief system of an organisation and its people. Trying to stand for too much or appearing opportunistic can actually do more harm than taking no action at all. In this context, successful examples of ethical judgement can see positive returns to businesses in a variety of ways – from strengthening internal linkages and fostering a positive internal workplace culture, to driving positive PR and conversations externally that support your brand narrative and business objectives.

Commitment to positive purpose enhances loyalty

Corporate ethics can cover a range of matters, including sustainability, diversity, culture and dishonesty. Whilst these factors may vary across industries due to the nature of activities and legal requirements, a clear commitment to ethical behaviour will always protect businesses from losing consumers.

When an organisation’s values and ideals align with its audience, it increases brand loyalty long term. Consumers prefer to align and associate with a brand they believe in or that makes them feel good. So when a brand’s social purpose is explicitly put on show and goes beyond expectations, it increases continued support and engagement in a globally competitive marketplace.

Ultimately, organisations who are open about their key desires, dealings and decisions, and support these with committed action, are less likely to be caught up in today’s cancel culture.

To learn more about the role of ethics in business, explore University of Melbourne’s microcredential, Ethical Judgment. This Melbourne MicroCert will give you a pragmatic understanding of your own ethical subjectivity and the plethora of alternative viewpoints, and the way organisational structures and culture shape individual and group-level judgement and decision-making.