Recent high-profile corporate scandals, with executives defrauding their employees, clients, the public and even friends, have left many people in disbelief.
And with questions. How could these people engage in such unethical business practices? Weren’t any of these people influenced by religious faith? And for those without a faith, wasn’t there a moral compass in their consciences?
We asked experts in ethics to help sort out some answers.
Are people who are part of a faith group any more ethical than those who aren’t?
“No,” said professor Ronald M. Green, director of the Ethics Institute at Dartmouth College. “There are many ethical people who hold no religious beliefs, and there are crooks who regularly attend church and say they are deeply religious.”
"There’s no reason to think that being religious is an automatic connection to being moral," said Scott Paeth, DePaul University professor and author of “Religious Perspectives on Business Ethics.”
“After all, Ken Lay (the late Enron chairman convicted of fraud and conspiracy) was very proud of his involvement with his church, while (convicted Enron CFO) Andy Fastow’s rabbi called him a ‘mensch,’ ” Yiddish for a person having admirable qualities.
"Mere affiliation with and even regular attendance at church or synagogue or mosque does not guarantee a commitment to ethics," said Robert Audi, business ethics professor of the Mendoza College of Business, University of Notre Dame.
“But internalizing, say, the ethics of ‘Love thy neighbor’ and the ethics of the Ten Commandments will yield strong motivation to be moral,” he said.
“It also should be added that a person does not have to be religious in order to be ethical, and there are nonreligious reasons to be ethical. But I believe there is some evidence that certain religious commitments strengthen ethical motivation and the tendency to act ethically.”
Do businesspeople have to sacrifice some degree of success to run their businesses with honesty and compassion? Or should compassion be part of running a business?
"It’s a myth that businesspeople have to sacrifice getting ahead to run their businesses with honesty and compassion," said Rick Boxx, founder of Integrity Resource Center in Olathe. The nonprofit organization promotes biblical wisdom and integrity in the workplace.
Having compassion is biblical.
“It’s appreciated by staff, and I believe it reaps dividends,” he said.
"Compassion should be part of running every successful business," said Clancy Martin, business ethics and philosophy professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City (more about him in Sunday’s A+E).
“Two examples, Bill Gates and Warren Buffet, insist the role of business has become so prominent in our contemporary culture, we have to include primary human values, such as compassion, in our business cultures.”
"Compassion is a special quality that goes beyond ordinary moral decency," Audi said.
“In my view, it may — leavened with prudence — strengthen leadership, earn employee loyalty and benefit business.”
Green said businesspeople should think in terms of integrity for success.
“What we have seen in the past few years is that a lack of integrity can reap short-term profits but ruins companies and industries.”
Paeth agrees: “While somebody might do well financially over the short term by beginning from a position of dishonesty, there’s no reason to believe that this will result in any long-term good for anyone.
“The current banking crisis illustrates that very well.”
Do some people compartmentalize their lives, for example, be cutthroat in business, yet belong to a faith group that teaches love, justice and compassion?
Green, of Dartmouth, told a story of President Abraham Lincoln being visited by the wives of two Confederate soldiers who were Union POWs and who had supported slavery.
“The wives asked for their husbands’ release and added, ‘They are religious men.’ Lincoln replied, ‘I don’t see how someone who thinks one man should earn his bread by other man’s forced labor can be called religious.’
“The point is that a religious position that ignores respect for others and integrity in all one’s conduct is a questionable religion. … A genuine Christian or Jewish or Muslim businessperson must show ethical values in his or her business affairs.
“Bernie Madoff may have gone to synagogue, but he was a bad Jew. WorldCom’s Bernard Ebbers taught Sunday school and often started corporate meetings with prayer, but he was a bad Baptist.”
Boxx said that rarely do businesspeople hear a sermon about how faith is related to their work.
“Then they witness every time a pastor calls a missionary forward for the congregation to pray over them for their ‘calling’ to the mission field. Rarely does a business person get prayed over or recognized for their ‘calling’ to the marketplace.
“This leads to the belief that their work is secular and has nothing to do with their faith.”
How does an employee handle a situation when asked to do something unethical on the job?
"The easy answer is to just say no," Paeth of DePaul said," but the problem often is complicated by pressures on employees to follow orders from their superiors."
“There are also problems in a bad economy for people afraid of losing their jobs,” he said. “But the deeper problem is the capacity that we have for telling ourselves that what we’re doing isn’t really immoral or unethical if it benefits us or our company.
“It’s our capacity for self-deception that’s as much a problem as knuckling under to external pressure.”
Boxx of Integrity Resource Center said that when he was a young CPA a boss asked him to do something illegal.
“Because my ethical decisions at that time in my life were based on pleasing others I buckled and did something I now regret. Now that my ethical decisions are based on pleasing God instead of man, it has been worth it because Proverbs teaches, ‘A good name is more desirable than great riches; to be esteemed is better than silver or gold.’ ”
Usually companies have codes that lay out standards, and Audi said one approach is something like: “I don’t think we can do that” where the person is given the sense of being under the same rules.
“But in recent years we have seen an upswing in preoccupation with making profits by any clever means available,” he said. “We must also beware of the slippery slope, which may begin with simply ignoring a wrong and then go to being asked to do one, which motivates a cover-up, etc.”
Because of the problem of business ethics, Martin, at UMKC, thinks a business ethics training and regulatory board should be established, similar to those in the medical and legal professions.