How you prepare for a catastrophic illness like AIDS can tell you as much about the health of your company as your financials can show you

It has become a truism that all companies should care about AIDS because it is good business to do so. At least that's what people who are thoughtful about the issue will tell you: small businesses avoid costly lawsuits, manage health-care costs better, and retain a more productive workplace by prospectively rather than retrospectively managing the infection of one of their employees.

And yet when I listen to this careful business argument I can't help feeling a bit impatient -- because the real reason company owners should concern themselves with AIDS has less to do with net income and more to do with caring. There is a business lesson here, folks, so bear me out.

Unfortunately, I know too much about AIDS. Two years ago my older brother died of AIDS-related complications after 10 years of being infected. Needless to say, it was a profound tragedy, one I cannot describe. But I can share one lesson I learned: the AIDS virus itself presents a perfect metaphor for its effect on relationships and institutions. People with AIDS do not die from the virus itself, which destroys the body's immune system, but from the petty ubiquitous infections the body can no longer fight.

Likewise, AIDS attacks the immune system of personal relationships and organizations like businesses, making them even more vulnerable to weaknesses already there, turning commonplace threats into lethal toxins. By the same token, AIDS can bring out the strengths of people and organizations.

My brother's illness magnified all those thorny obstacles that already made our relationship as brothers so painful. I was the classic younger brother -- needing validation and approval from an older version of myself. And Peter, the oldest in the family, was predisposed to be impatient with me and my attempts to gain his attention. Our fundamental problems were exaggerated by the virus: desperate to resolve things before our deadline, I became more eager and needy, while Peter, living his remaining time with a rage for truth, became more impatient with me, demanding a maturity and acceptance I could not give. And so in the end, though the virus made even more important those moments of love we shared, I can say that I am happy for the effort, not the results.

I share this personal story because I believe that in business as well as in a family, AIDS lays bare the deeper health -- or disease -- of an organization. Take what system you will, AIDS will intensify preexisting conditions. A company that already treats its employees well will respond compassionately when one of its own has AIDS; a company that doesn't, won't. And though I would like to argue that companies can change, it is unlikely that one case of AIDS will transform a company that is not predisposed to handle it well into one that will.

A company's response to AIDS enables one to check its vital signs. Does it treat its employees as productive assets or cogs in the machine? To belong to the new economy of "high-performance companies," a company must vest employees with the power to think and act on their own. A company can't do that without looking at the whole employee, without sending the message that it cares and will act accordingly. Conversely, the degree to which employees are aware of a business's AIDS policies can reveal the level of engagement those employees have in company programs overall.

Moreover, AIDS challenges a company's integrity. AIDS is like a prism -- it gathers all the "hot" buttons, such as sexuality or drug addiction or illness, that don't seem to belong in a workplace and puts a new accent on them. Surely no company can resolve the discomfort that accompanies many of those topics. But a company can exhibit model behavior -- walk the talk in a manner that assures all employees that they will receive respect. All employees, even those ostensibly unconcerned with AIDS, look to see how the company treats an employee with the virus -- because they might wonder personally if it will act with integrity about, say, cancer...or drug addiction...or homosexuality.

Perhaps the most important vital sign that AIDS reveals is how a company faces reality. Smart companies look ahead. A company that sees the statistics and prepares for the infection of at least one of its employees is -- like a company that foresees a tectonic shift in its primary market -- worlds ahead of its competitors. Moreover, a company that squarely addresses things when they are falling apart -- in the workplace or in the marketplace -- is the company that endures.

Ultimately, as I said, the issue is about caring. A case of AIDS challenges some of the basic assumptions about what a company is all about. Is it a temporary shell of people who cluster around one purpose -- to make money -- or is it something more than that? Companies often judge their health by the most superficial of financial measures; employees' well-being in every sense of the word is probably a better indicator of a business's health in today's economy. The result of meaningful work often leads to prosperity, not the other way around.

Companies as well as individuals can learn something from unflinchingly confronting the illness -- namely, who they are. Personally, I learned lessons about what are inexorable parts of my identity and about what I can transcend. Companies, too, can assess their own identities by how they respond to AIDS.

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Tom Ehrenfeld is an Inc. staff writer.