People interact with businesses in a variety of roles: as shareholders who provide valuable capital; as employees who conduct the day to day tasks of the business and whose families are supported by the wages provided in exchange for employee labor; as consumers and customers who interact directly with the products and services of the company and determine their value; as community members who are touched by the impact of the organization in their city; and as onlookers who view advertisements promoting the business and its values. It is not an exaggeration to assert that business, as a collective system, touches the life of every person. In this powerful role, the way businesses interact with and represent people is of great importance.
Businesses would not exist without people – people to found and fund them, run and grow them, value and benefit from them. Yet it is all too common for systems to see people as a means to a very narrow end. In business, profit strategy may often precede and outweigh considerations about how decisions will impact various stakeholders beyond shareholders. Whether intentional or unintentional, this strategy may lead to the mistreatment of individuals through actions that reduce or undervalue people (for example, low-wage payment to employees, pollution in communities, or the objectification of people in advertisements).
On the other hand, virtuous organizations see people as the end rather than the means, thoughtfully acknowledging their power and responsibility in interactions with all of their stakeholders. Virtuous organizations see whole-person creation as a critical part of the balance to an organization. A virtuous organization is saturated with the belief that people have basic needs and rights that the organization is capable of honoring.
According to psychologist Abraham Maslow, all humans have a basic need for physiological care (food, shelter, rest), safety, love and belonging, esteem, and self-actualization (the ability to reach one’s potential), and these needs are met in a hierarchical fashion. In addition, the United Nations has described a set of universal human rights, including the right to freedom of expression, a standard of physical, emotional, and mental well-being, and to be treated as equals. Virtuous organizations actively protect their stakeholders’ human rights and enable them to move up the hierarchy of needs. They do not impede the needs or rights of their stakeholders, nor do they partner with others who do so.
Virtuous organizations seek to understand the ways that their company touches individuals in a variety of roles. Then they strive to humanize those individuals, even if those individuals are removed from directly interacting with the company.
Humanizing interactions – collaborative interactions in which all party’s basic human needs and rights are considered, respected, and protected, regardless of blood-relation or organizational affiliation – are central to how a business interfaces with all stake-holders and onlookers.
For example, a core motivation for creating a humanizing workplace for employees is the recognition that employees are spending the majority of their time giving their energy to help the business accomplish its purpose. In return, virtuous organizations can honor the employees’ whole selves: treating them respectfully, providing them with fair compensation and benefits, creating a safe and inclusive workplace, and providing opportunities for professional and personal development opportunities. As people, they matter to the organization even if these practices do not enhance productivity and increase financial gains.
Brands in the beauty industry are creating humanizing experiences for their stakeholders. Companies have launched advertising initiatives with the commitment to stop retouching their models and to include people with disabilities and more diverse skin tones, body shapes, and ages as models. These companies’ customers, typically young women, are prone to internalize the images they see representing beauty, and they experience psychological distress if they don’t look the same as the images they see.
These adjustments to better represent their customer base humanizes a sometimes uncomfortable experience for consumers. The reported impact of these initiatives includes increased body confidence for both models and consumers viewing the advertisements, plus positive financial returns for the companies.
Virtuous organizations also embrace the responsibility to ensure that suppliers, buyers, contractors, and others touching their supply chain are not violating the human rights of their stakeholders. While the complications of supply chains often prevent an intense focus on the practices of a partners’ stakeholders, virtuous organizations are aware of them and commit to treating them in humanizing ways.
Honoring the humanity of stakeholders is done by offering them voice and choice, ensuring their ideas, feedback, and interests are correctly identified and recorded. Organizations can consider requests, see nuance and recognize complications, respond personally, and connect in more deep and meaningful ways.
Virtuous organizations can use their tremendous power and access to resources to embrace the opportunity to move individuals up the hierarchy of physiological needs, safety, love/belonging, esteem, and self-actualization. Thoughtfulness and intentionality in how businesses interact with individuals has the potential to transform individual lives and contribute to the creation of a more unified society.