I’ve been making my way around Atlanta speaking to various groups on the subject of business ethics. My talk is entitled Business Ethics – Why the Bother? In it, I make the case that a company can benefit in multiple ways from adhering to high ethical standards. Indeed, I believe it is well worth the bother to be known in the marketplace and society at large as an ethical entity. After all, with the mere summoning of Google and the avalanche of information that can follow, who wants to do business with a shady, ethically challenged company?
Making my way from writing a novel to speaking on business ethics isn’t quite a straight line, is it? While my novel Dare Not Blink is a business thriller, it also deals with ethics. The book’s protagonist, Dave Paige, is a business executive of high character who becomes embroiled in a nasty power struggle with others of another, lesser sort. So does the ethical guy win in the end? Well, for no less than the sake of the American system of capitalism, let’s hope so.
I exaggerate, I confess. That a novel would have a discernible bearing on the survival of American free enterprise is a bit of a stretch, to be sure.
But in real terms the idea of the ethical guy winning in the end has everything to do with our free-market system either flourishing or fading away. Americans are fast losing confidence in many of our long-standing institutions, to include government, the press, the public school system, the church, and business. Some in the political class, who themselves are regarded in a now famous survey as only slightly more preferable than cockroaches, have made a sport of bewailing the behavior of many business leaders, especially those on Wall Street. The criticism is not entirely without merit, in all fairness.
That’s why I’m speaking up. The vast majority of the men and women I dealt with in my business career were virtuous, conscientious people who tried to do the right thing for their customers, employees, and suppliers. Of course they weren’t perfect, but they were guided by an ethical code that drove them to do the right thing. They are the good and righteous nucleus, the backbone of the business profession.
Much work still needs to be done at the executive levels in adopting and then maintaining a rigorous code of ethics in their respective companies and industries. Leadership is critical here, and there is little chance of regaining the trust of the public without the broadly positive examples that only leaders can provide.
Additionally, students of business should be exposed to ethics in a far more intensive way. These are our future business leaders, and the global, ultra-competitive, cutthroat arena they will enter will be fraught with ethical challenges. They should be made to understand that a profession with little appetite for policing itself will bring about the ubiquitous and ruthless regulation from the outside, the cumulative results of which will resemble death by a thousand cuts.
We have lots of challenges ahead of us as a nation. Political, economic, and cultural issues abound, many with implications that could alter our society in ways that we can’t yet foresee or even understand. But our free-enterprise model has done so much for so many, and has so much potential yet unrealized, that its healthy continuance should be central. We should relentlessly seek to improve upon it, but never apologize for it. As far from perfect as it is, it’s still the best economic system in the world. And it’s up to us to make it better.
That’s the reason I advocate for business ethics.