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Rice University research looks into corporate responsibility for compassion

Can corporations be compassionate? Rice University researchers are figuring that out. Pexels

Since the early 2000s, the business of doing business has changed its looks markedly. As corporations gain power and reach, many in the public are subjecting them to increasingly insistent questions about their impact on the lives of workers, the environment and society at large.

At the same time, academics have focused more attention on compassion in management and business organizations. Today, considerable research parses the way corporate conduct affects employees, laid-off workers and the well-being of society as a whole. A considerable segment of this academic literature advocates for what once seemed like an oxymoron: compassion in corporate management.

Most of the recent research on compassion focuses on individuals and the group. Most management research, meanwhile, centers on economic performance and efficiency. In an editorial for Journal of Management, though, Rice Business Mary Gibbs Jones Professor Emeritus of Management Jennifer George argues that compassion research can actually be a jumping-off point for focus on social problems, well-being and identifying the conditions under which organizations do the least harm.

But what is compassion in business, exactly? According to George, it's the practice of setting up organizations so that they respond to the vulnerable groups in their orbit. To do this, George says, companies should reconsider the concept of "American Corporate Capitalism (ACC)," which operates when corporations, workers and consumers pursue self-interest. ACC follows the laws of supply and demand, and is founded on the bedrock principles of respect for private property, an emphasis on economic growth and using profits as the measuring stick for making business decision.

Make no mistake, George adds: "ACC is an ideology." A host of institutions provide the underpinnings that allow ACC to flourish, among them the legal system, governmental agencies, stock markets, media and advertising and trade organizations.

But, notes George, the rewards from American Corporate Capitalism are narrowing sharply. ACC, she contends, now concentrates benefits upon fewer and fewer people. One article she cites suggests that outsized CEO salaries and compensation, coupled with large income inequality within a company, may result in organizations that do harm to their workers.

In fact, "the tenets of ACC seem to downplay the importance of compassionate organizing," says George. Harm done by corporations, such as laying off employees, may occur unintentionally, but those decisions still cause suffering. ACC, she says, "has the potential to create conditions under which compassion is much less likely to occur."

As a result, it's crucial to closely examine the tensions and contradictions between ACC and compassion. A focus on compassion would "identify the conditions under which organizations inflict the least harm and alleviate the most suffering," George writes.

She proposes a wide-ranging agenda to achieve this. First, researchers should look at organizational decision-making to track the influence of ACC values and whether criteria such as dominance or hierarchy override harmony and egalitarianism. Identifying the factors that spur organizations to favor only shareholders and customers over employees and neighboring communities could offer insights for management. Other research, George suggests, ought to examine a range of companies operating in the same sector, tracing which cause more damage and which are more successful at reducing suffering.

Finally, George says, academics should develop case studies of organizations that successfully pursue policies such as employing the disabled – policies designed to promote the well-being of vulnerable groups inside and outside the company.

Because corporations wield such vast influence, the harm they do can reach wide swaths of the population. It's time, George writes, for researchers to examine the disconnects between prevailing corporate culture and compassion. Effectively done, she says, such research could vault over the ivory battlements into the heart of everyday life.

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This story originally ran on Rice Business Wisdom in 2019.

Based on research from Jennifer M. George, the Mary Gibbs Jones Professor Emeritus of Management in Organizational Behavior at the Jones Graduate School of Business at Rice University.

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UH has found a way to instantly zap COVID-10. Andriy Onufriyenko/Getty Images

While the world rushes to find a COVID-19 vaccine, scientists from the University of Houston have found a way to trap and kill the virus — instantly.

The team has designed a "catch and kill" air filter that can nullify the virus responsible for COVID-19. Researchers reported that tests at the Galveston National Laboratory found 99.8 percent of the novel SARS-CoV-2 — which causes COVID-19 — was killed in a single pass through the filter.

Zhifeng Ren, director of the Texas Center for Superconductivity at UH, collaborated with Monzer Hourani, CEO of Medistar, a Houston-based medical real estate development firm, plus other researchers to design the filter, which is described in a paper published in Materials Today Physics.

Researchers were aware the virus can remain in the air for about three hours, which required a filter that could quickly remove it. The added pressure of businesses reopening created an urgency in controlling the spread of the virus in air conditioned spaces, according to UH.

Meanwhile, to scorch the virus — which can't survive above around 158 degrees Fahrenheit — researchers instilled a heated filter. By blasting the temperature to around 392 F, they were able to kill the virus almost instantly.

The filter also killed 99.9 percent of the anthrax spores, according to researchers.

A prototype was built by a local workshop and first tested at Ren's lab for the relationship between voltage/current and temperature; it then went to the Galveston lab to be tested for its ability to kill the virus. Ren says it satisfies the requirements for conventional heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems.

"This filter could be useful in airports and in airplanes, in office buildings, schools and cruise ships to stop the spread of COVID-19," said Ren, MD Anderson Chair Professor of Physics at UH and co-corresponding author for the paper, in a statement. "Its ability to help control the spread of the virus could be very useful for society."

Medistar executives are also proposing a desk-top model, capable of purifying the air in an office worker's immediate surroundings, Ren added.

Developers have called for a phased roll-out of the device, with a priority on "high-priority venues, where essential workers are at elevated risk of exposure — particularly schools, hospitals and health care facilities, as well as public transit environs such as airplanes."

The hope, developers add, is that the filter will protect frontline workers in essential industries and allow nonessential workers to return to public work spaces.

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