Last August while trolling for votes at the Iowa State Fair, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney created a little media stir when, egged on by an irate protestor, he said, “Corporations are people, too, my friend.”


Warehouses whooping it up on Friday nights? Rail yards having reunions? Open pit mines having barbecues? Glass and steel towers exchanging Christmas cards?

This is not a surprising assertion coming from Mitt, who owned and was CEO of a private equity firm, Bain Capital, for 15 years. From 1984 to 1999, Mr. Romney and his deputies made fortunes by investing in, acquiring and then selling about 150 companies, according to The New York Times. By 2007 Mr. Romney and his wife had a net worth of between $190 and $250 million, most of it held in blind trusts, according to The Washington Post.

The acquisitive Mr. Romney moved hundreds of companies around like people on a chess board. From that detached, distant perspective, perhaps companies seem like people; you know, movable objects.

Corporations have legal rights

From a legal view, Mr. Rommey is right on. As a matter of interpretation of the word “person” in the Fourteenth Amendment, U.S. courts have extended certain constitutional protections to corporations. This is called the doctrine of corporate personhood. Groups organized specifically for business purposes, including corporations, may also benefit from its protections, just as any other group of persons.

For example, a corporation is allowed to own property and enter contracts. It can also sue and be sued and held liable under both civil and criminal law. Because the corporation is legally considered a “person,” individual shareholders are not legally responsible for the corporation’s debts and damages beyond their investment in the corporation. Individual employees, managers, and directors are liable for their own lawbreaking while acting on behalf of the corporation, but are not generally liable for the corporation’s actions.

Got that? This is what Mr. Romney was trying to explain to his “friend” at the fair.

As a safety and health professional, you’ve probably worked for more than one company. Did the company strike you as a natural, or even artificial, person?

Wouldn’t it be nice

The work of safety and health pros would be easier if companies were just plain folks.

They’d be more accessible. Easier to walk up and talk to. Have a cup of coffee with to talk frankly about safety and health issues of the day. Since those issues often have to do with human error, human frailties, behavors, attitudes, biases and perceptions, a corporation as a person could relate. Chances are, a corporation as a person would listen, ask questions, show some empathy. Probably more than many CEOs, CFO, COOs.

No silos

Here’s another example where dealing with a person beats contending with a corporation. Corporations often come with a set of silos, used to contain or entrap certain sets of employees, usually ones who don’t contribute to the bottom line, such as HR, sustainability officers, and safety and health pros. Corporate systems can be more efficient when these “cost centers” are sent out to a silo farm.

Of course people are not equipped with silos. Professionals dealing with corporations as people wouldn’t need to worry about being “siloed.”

Tough to read

Another example: Savvy safety and health pros can look a person in the eye and read them fairly well; deciphering what they’re really thinking. It’s tough to bluff an experienced pro. They’ve seen too much.

But you can’t go eyeball to eyeball with a corporation. Corporations are hard to read. More than one pro has been hoodwinked and hired into a company that said all the right things about safety and health but had lousy follow-through.

Life would be simpler if you could go out for drinks with your company after work, loosen up, and get to the bottom of some issues. You could have your company over for dinner, go out to a ball game, you know, build a relationship.

The integration game

But most safety and health pros are in the position of having to integrate themselves into company affairs. By comparison, you don’t integrate yourself into another person. Pros must learn the culture of the company. People can come with baggage but not cultures. It’s been said forever safety and health pros must speak management’s language. Again, this is something easier done with a person than an institution. People — with the execption of IT techies, physicians, attorneys and certain auto mechanics  — don’t speak in tongues that you must take a course to understand.

Maybe Mitt meant this…

You might say, what are companies but collections of people. Companies are much more than bad elevator music, cafeteria food and cramped cubicles. They are made up of people. Well, Wal-Mart is made up of more than two million “associates,” but I don’t get a warm feeling walking into one of Wal-Mart’s sterile airplane hangars, no matter how pleasant the greeter is. Same with Lowe’s, Home Depot, Best Buy, Target, no matter how they try to make it Martha Stewart friendly. I’m on my own in those places. Free to get lost or trampled over on Black Friday.

The corporate conscience

The job of safety and health pros in many huge bureuacratic corporations is to try to humanize and sensitize the place, the culture, the accountants and scientists. Diminish its intimidating scale by creating teams, safety logos, competitions, coaching one on one, trying to create a sense of belongingness. Safety and health pros are often called the conscience of corporations. Why? Because corporate entities don’t have consciences. Again, life would be easier if Mitt was right and companies were people.

Some safety and health pros face an easier task of sensitizing the corporation. Corporations with proud safety and health histories and track records need less coaxing to care for employees. Corporations that profit by extracting wealth from the earth are more likely to be sensitive to environmental concerns, especially in this age of sustainability. Same for big corporate polluters. They are increasingly sensitive to the size of their “footprint.”

Small companies with small workforces are often humane and caring because they operate like families, not nation states. Everyone is on a first-name basis. They may all be from the same town. Neighbors. Decades ago NIOSH studied companies with honors-winning safety programs; all had less than 200 employees.

Nations without borders

Speaking of nation states, of the world’s 100 largest economies in 2000, 51 were corporations, according to the Institute for Policy Study. General Motors, Wal-Mart, Exxon Mobil, Ford Motor all had GDPs greater than Saudi Arabia.

There are excellent safety and health pros working for these companies, and many other multinationals. Slowly but surely over the years pros have made many of these “autonomous countries” more accountable, more transparent, more humane, more caring, more cognizant of safety and heath risks. But there is still a long way to go to rein in some of these nations without borders.

The idea of corporations as nations without borders can be discomfiting. So Mitt personifies them. After all, he’s got a nomination to win.