Is Employment a Corporate Social Responsibility?

I heard some interesting reactions to and interpretations of the comments on April 29 by Dr Margaret Chan, the Director-General of the World Health Organization. She said:

“I have reached out to companies manufacturing antiviral drugs to assess capacity and all options for ramping up production.

“I have also reached out to influenza vaccine manufacturers that can contribute to the production of a pandemic vaccine.

….

“Above all, this is an opportunity for global solidarity as we look for responses and solutions that benefit all countries, all of humanity. After all, it really is all of humanity that is under threat during a pandemic.”

In on-air chat the next morning, these comments led the CNN anchors into a discussion of corporate social responsibility in the broad sense, of pharma companies as rich citizens of the world, etc. Their explicit point: hey, drug companies — you’re making billions off of us, so don’t be greedy when the world needs your Tamiflu.

If that is a fair point, then how come we never heard it applied to the economy? According to the CDC there are, as of now, 226 cases of 2009 H1N1* in the US. By contrast, the Labor Department says some 1.9 Million Americans have lost their jobs since December 2007. A more widespread pandemic, don’t you think?

But we never heard a public outcry, or a governmental shout-out, to this effect.  What if someone with a bully pulpit said this:

“The Economic Meltdown of 2008-2009 is a pandemic, fueled by the contagion of uncertainty. People are afraid they are going to lose their livelihoods, so they stop spending, that causes losses in the companies that produce our goods and services, and those companies go on to lay more people off.

“To stop the spread of this pandemic, we need to contain the layoffs and the fear of layoffs. So we are calling on the companies that have profited from the American consumer to now do their part, to live up to their social responsibility, by striving to the greatest extent commercially possible NOT to put more people out of work.”

And saying that wouldn’t have cost the taxpayers a dime.

I have run companies. When my company’s survival or fundamental profitability was at stake, I laid people off. I really had no choice. And for many companies this year, that sad reality is behind their RIFs.

But seriously, and I would like to hear from my fellow corporate ethicists out there, do you think is it patriotic, is it ethical in this kind of economy for a profitable company to lay people off just to increase its profit margin?

I’m just asking.

But even Jack Welch might say that kind of layoff is unethical AND bad for business. At least, I think he’s saying that these days, now that he has repudiated the idea of “shareholder value” as a prime objective of business. As Jack told the Financial Times:

“Shareholder value is a result, not a strategy . . . Your main constituencies are your employees, your customers and your products.”

* I like bacon way, way too much to call it “swine flu.”