National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  October 24, 2003

By David Batstone
Jossey-Bass, 244 pages, $26.95
Revamping standards for corporations

Reviewed by CHRIS BYRD

In a “Simpsons” episode, the family goes on an amusement park ride: Enron’s Land of Broken Dreams, which ends literally in the poorhouse. It is dubious if former Enron employees could find humor in that satire, but their plight -- after their former bosses’ fraud and betrayal caused these employees to lose their jobs and savings -- has come to symbolize all that is wrong with corporations in the United States. Accounting fraud, sweatshop abuses, massive layoffs to shore up a company’s bottom line, racial and gender bias, reckless disregard for the environment, and lavish compensation to executives -- who typically earn 458 times more than the typical worker -- all add to the perception that corporations are soulless entities concerned only with maximizing profits. This perception isn’t unwarranted, but, as David Batstone argues persuasively in his new book, Saving the Corporate Soul & (Who Knows?) Maybe Your Own: Eight Principles for Life in an Honest, Value-Centered, Competitive Organization, corporations do possess souls. They can act with integrity and can do good in the world while creating prosperity for their workers and investors.

If corporations adhered to eight principles, Batstone believes, they could reclaim their souls. These principles are: principled leadership and governance, transparency and integrity in their actions, commitment to the communities where they’re located, honoring customers, valuing workers, respecting the environment, promoting equality and diversity, and acting as good global citizens.

Batstone is the executive editor of Sojourners magazine and a professor of social ethics at the University of San Francisco. He, however, isn’t merely an academic social critic making recommendations that are not rooted in his experience. Batstone’s entrepreneurial experience within the technology and entertainment industries lends an uncommon credibility to his arguments.

Many may be skeptical that corporations can possess souls, but a corporation with soul, Batstone writes, “puts its resources at the service of the people it employs and the public it serves.” The author cites a Cone/Roper study to demonstrate that workers want to work for a company with a good reputation more than they’re concerned with fringe benefits. Employees, Batstone believes, play a critical role in creating soulful companies, and he urges workers to leave corporations that act in ways that conflict with the workers’ principles.

How executives and board members lead and govern corporations, for Batstone, is the leading barometer to measure how soulful a company is. “Directors,” he writes, “who fail to direct and executives who fail to lead are at the root of what ails the corporate world today.” The author outlines several practical reforms to help hold executives accountable to workers and shareholders for how executives are compensated and for how they report earnings and expenses. These reforms include requiring top managers to hold 75 percent of their shares for as long as they work for a company and companies to reflect stock options more honestly as expenses.

Transparency in a company’s culture, management, financial reporting and commitments, according to Batstone, is the key to ensure that corporations are well led and governed. Transparent corporations’ actions, dealings and transactions are aboveboard and out in the open. These companies, moreover, view workers, customers, the community and environment as stakeholders in their enterprises and safeguard their reputations by acting in socially responsible ways.

Given our cynicism about the corporate world, it may seem like a tall order for corporations to measure up to these commitments, but in each chapter that illustrates one of his eight principles, Batstone offers refreshing, heartening examples of companies that have developed innovative approaches that honor these commitments and show other companies better ways to go. For example, 90 percent of Timberland’s employees participate in their Path of Service program, which pays them to volunteer 16 hours a year; and at Science Applications International, which employs approximately 40,000 people, employees and former employees own 90 percent of the company.

Batstone states he wrote Saving the Corporate Soul for workers, but, as he has properly observed, all have a stake in holding corporations accountable and can benefit from the book’s practical wisdom. While not necessarily memorable, Batstone’s prose is eminently readable. Despite its curiously unsatisfying conclusion, readers will refer constantly to Saving the Corporate Soul long after they’ve finished it. They’ll be compelled to reconsider their own biases toward corporations and encouraged by how Batstone has re-visioned what corporations can become.

Neither corporate bashers nor those who defend them blindly have it quite right about corporations. The truth is much more complicated. Saving the Corporate Soul, however, confirms one thing: Corporations’ souls are worth saving.

Chris Byrd is a freelance writer from Bethesda, Md.

National Catholic Reporter, October 24, 2003

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