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Forget Big vs Small Business - All Employers Can Help Rebuild the Reputation of Business

It sometimes feels that a week doesn't pass without a high profile example of business falling short of the standards expected by customers and wider society. In light of the tax controversy involving one of our biggest banks that continues to dominate headlines - this latest poll perhaps comes as no surprise.

I was struck recently by the findings from a survey suggesting that three-quarters of people think big firms put profits before ethical standards.

It sometimes feels that a week doesn't pass without a high profile example of business falling short of the standards expected by customers and wider society. In light of the tax controversy involving one of our biggest banks that continues to dominate headlines - this latest poll perhaps comes as no surprise.

What struck me wasn't that public trust in business is sadly, once again faltering, but that the language used within the media coverage of this particular poll, focused on the contrast between the public perception of wrongdoing by large business and the virtues of honest hard working small businesses.

While big business must do more to rebuild its reputation, it is simplistic to position the debate about trust and the role of business in society as being about big bad vs. honest small business. The reality is far more nuanced.

For a start, there isn't a large business that doesn't have smaller businesses as an essential link in its supply chain. The businesses I work with are increasingly understanding that thriving SME's and the jobs they create lead to more vibrant communities within which to live, work and do business. So it is in the interest of all businesses, of all sizes to work together and support the growth of sustainable, responsible business action across the UK.

It's also important to recognise that the challenges faced by CEOs that genuinely want to ensure that their business does the right thing for society are the same, regardless of the size of that business. Culture change is not easy, and that is the case whether you are a high-growth, innovative start-up firm experiencing rapid expansion and trying to maintain core values; a small family owned business struggling with succession planning; or sitting at the helm of a multinational corporation operating across complex global markets.

Businesses of all sizes are staffed by individuals. All actions taken by business, good, bad or otherwise are made by individual employees and it is the responsibility of these employees to demonstrate the behaviour that the public expects. It is these actions which determine how trusted a business is perceived to be.

Large businesses employ 39% of people across the UK. Some of these are the CEO's and senior managers that face the brunt of public criticism in the annual polls. However the vast majority of employees within business are the cashiers, administrators, customer-service staff - ordinary people, on ordinary salaries who get up each day to do as good a job as possible. It's unfair to continually represent big business employees in a negative light.

When things do go wrong, it is often due to a gap between business values and behaviour. This can be frustrating for CEOs. I remember running large organisations in the years following the Enron scandal and being required to confidently verify that all of my organisational processes were compliant under the terms of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act. While I had the systems in place to confidently do this I was also acutely aware that I would never know everything that was happening within my business.

To really shift the reputation of business, CEO's need to work much harder to ensure that they proactively create a culture inside their business that encourages and supports employees to make the right decisions and do the right thing. This means ensuring that employees understand the wider purpose of their business and demonstrate this understanding through their everyday work. It means translating the values at the top of a business into behaviour on the shop or trading floor. It also means acknowledging that working within the law isn't necessarily the same as doing the right thing.

There is no easy solution on how to get this right. It is part of the discussion at the Responsible Leadership Summit in London this week which will see over 500 leaders including Business in the Community's incoming chairman Antony Jenkins (Group Chief Executive, Barclays) and Steve Holiday CEO of National Grid, come together to explore the scale of the challenge facing society and some of the steps business leaders can take to ensure their business contributes to creating a fairer society and more sustainable future.

One key way for business to take its rightful place in society is the practical action that leaders can take to not only reprimand failings when things go wrong, but also actively encourage employees to champion the right behaviour.

Business in the Community works with businesses of all sizes to create change in society. This year we are celebrating 30 years of HRH the Prince of Wales's Presidency of the organisation - and one of the defining changes he has driven is harnessing the passion of employees to make a difference in their communities.

Our members between them have a combined workforce of 10 million people - and at the heart of our most successful campaigns are employees, who give their time, energy and expertise in service of communities. Whether that be the graduate inspiring a disadvantaged young person as a mentor; the HR expert coaching a long term unemployed individual into work; the business manager working with their local head teacher to establish excellent leadership, or the accountant providing pro bono bookkeeping skills to support a local charity. All of our work is characterised by passionate people from businesses large and small taking action. It's essential that forward thinking companies acknowledge the positive role that their employees play and take time to thank them for their contribution.

Working together is also key. Businesses of all sizes need to learn from those businesses who are getting it right in the eyes of the public. Such collaboration is one of the unique strengths of the network of businesses and leaders who have been part of Business in the Community -The Prince's Responsible Business Network for the past 30 years.

I want to see a shift in public perception of business and firmly believe nurturing employees to play their part will be a key part of business earning back lost trust.

Furthermore, by getting it right on the inside, we will create more responsible businesses that manage growth responsibly, reduce dependency on natural resources, operate as responsible employers, suppliers and neighbours and help to create vibrant communities where people can flourish.

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