Ethics In Business
by Matthew Cramer
There are times when ethics issues threaten to have us for breakfast.
The Product Line I managed in the Aerospace business sold product in the United States, and countries in the Middle East, Europe and Asia. Each of these countries has different norms, values and rules that guide their commerce. As a prerequisite for success, and out of courtesy and respect, international commerce mandates that we know each country’s culture and try to abide by their values and rules.
But there can be glaring differences. Many foreign countries, for example, wink at, or even approve of, actions that might be called bribes or kickbacks in this country. Differences like this can instigate significant conflicts with a company’s policies and our personal values.
Several years ago, a foreign customer who was visiting us began to drop hints that he would like us to host a party where female services would be available to him and his team. I didn’t take him seriously at first because I thought that kind of thing in the Aerospace business died early in the Go-Go 1960’s. Nevertheless, I checked with my Contract specialist to see if he was getting the same hints. When we compared notes it was clear we were in fact being requested to provide female services.
Ethics issues begin with a threat to our well-being (real or imagined). The dilemma occurs because there are several possible solutions, each with its own consequences, and no clear winner.
There is a spiritual component as well. Some solutions can take us further down a path towards God, and others take us away from God toward ourselves. Indeed, our faith makes plain that unbridled submission to our own desires and wants, will lead us away from God and from our fellow man. Thus, we are personally, and inextricably linked with the decisions; and the outcomes have great import in the secular and sacred arenas of our lives.
There are four aspects of ethics dilemmas that stand out in my experience:
- Ethics vs. character issues
- Rules and decision models
- Whose norms and values are trump?
- The vacant threat of consequences
ETHICS VS. CHARACTER ISSUES
If you know what to do, and the perceived consequences cause you hesitation, you do not have an ethics issue — you have a character issue.
When I was a young boy, I was often tempted to steal model airplane kits from the local store (back when the kits were made of balsa wood). I was not confronting an ethics issue, I was confronting a character issue. My value system told me that stealing was wrong and, if caught, I might be put in jail. The issue I had to resolve was whether I had the integrity of character to let my values rule my actions, or would I yield to the often formidable and fickle demands of my desires and their risks.
In the foreign customer’s case cited above, there was no conflict of issues on our side of the equation. Our company policies, and certainly our own management would never approve providing female services to a customer. The Contract specialist and I did not personally condone such behavior either. But the customer’s value set (personal or otherwise) still allowed him to make the request and we had to deny him in the least offensive way possible.
So we were in the midst of a character issue. We didn’t want to moralize or offend him if we could avoid it. And, we certainly didn’t want to escalate the issue into the arena of company or country values and policies. But we needed to send him a clear message that, while we were not judging him personally, we would not respond. We settled on a very simple, polite, unemotional but firm response.
It happened that the Contract specialist received the next hint and he told our customer: “We don’t do that”. Thankfully, that was the end of it. Later, that same customer was very helpful in clearing some difficult bureaucratic red tape concerning deliveries made in his country.
I am not suggesting that character issues are easy; they are not. Our character grows through adversity and opportunities to make ever more difficult decisions — God sees to that. But character issues are not ethics issues. When we confront a character issue we can sometimes be tempted to call it an ethics dilemma and thus duck some of the annoying, very personal responsibilities and accountabilities that challenge our character.
RULES AND DECISION MODELS
Here are some points I have found helpful in practice.
Get as many facts about the situation as possible. Many ethics dilemmas disappear when additional information is discovered.
Several years ago, I consulted with small businesses. Now the tradeoff between quality and product deliveries is a notorious source of ethics issues. The customer wants the highest quality, which usually takes more production time. But, product delivery is required to pay the bills. So, when deliveries or profits are threatened, quality is the first to suffer.
One of my clients was an Industrial Photographer in the days before widespread digital photography, Photoshop software, and the like. He was engaged to take a picture of a client’s building for a brochure. The photographer went downtown, viewed the building from many different directions, heights, sun angles and lighting conditions. When he had selected exactly the right location and time of day, he took several shots and headed for his darkroom.
Because his customer said the picture was for a very important marketing brochure, our photographer — wanting to make a great impression on the customer — spent many hours making a print with just the right shadows, lighting conditions and focus. When he was satisfied, he mailed the master print and his bill to the customer. Several days later his invoice was returned with a check for payment in full. Months went by and he heard nothing further about the job.
Then one day, he had a chance encounter with that customer. In the course of their discussion he asked the customer how the brochure had turned out. The customer replied that he was very satisfied and bragged that the brochures had been distributed just two days after he had received the picture. Surprised, the photographer asked how was that possible since high-quality, offset printing often took a week or more to schedule and run.
“Oh”, replied the customer, “we just ran them off on our office copier”.
When there’s a conflict in values, seek the greater good, and/or least damage.
Most of us believe stealing is wrong, and that a primary responsibility of the husband and wife is to provide for the well being of the family members.
One classic ethics dilemma postulates a family that’s starving, and presented with an opportunity to steal a loaf of bread. Notice in this problem, both serious consequences and value conflicts are present.
The solution is standard fare in any undergraduate ethics course: Steal the bread — because preservation of life is a greater good than the minimal value of a loaf of bread.
While the “greater good” rule is helpful, it can sometimes lead to further confusion — whose greater good and whose least damage?
Several years back, I was a regular speaker at some national conferences for business and professional people. During one of my talks on Christian Ethics, an attendee contributed this delightful ethics problem that always prompts lively discussion.
It seems a large, high volume turkey processor, prepares thousands of turkeys per month — the annual volume is in the hundreds of thousands. Now whole bird turkeys retail off-season for about $1.30 per pound; breasts, drumsticks and thighs are cut from the largest turkeys and sell by the piece for about $1.90 per pound, a 46% increase. Turkey necks, however, sell for next to nothing.
Since each whole bird includes a neck, the processor picks the largest necks to include with the whole bird, whether or not the neck originally came from that bird. Thus the processor is able to minimize his waste, make his business more profitable, and employ more people.
Setting legalities aside for the moment, the issue is: Since the consumer is frequently charged the whole bird price for a much larger neck than was originally attached to the bird, is it ethics for the producer to follow this practice?
To paraphrase Karl Marx: Rules and regulations are the opiate of the bureaucrat.
They have the capability to absolve us of personal responsibility. If you have a rule to blame, a rule that enables you avoid thinking through an ethics problem for yourself, you are tempted to plunge into legalism. Then you can assume the role of an uninvolved bystander whose only responsibility is to select and recite rules to apply.
Does this sound familiar? “I don’t care what your extenuating circumstances are, this is what the rule says and I can’t change it.” Or, how about: “If I make an exception in your case, I’ll have to do it for everyone.”
All of us, at one time or another, have encountered this dodge by some bureaucrat or clerk. We too, at one time or another, have probably used this same dodge to abdicate our own responsibilities to make decisions and be accountable.
The lure of legalism is very powerful indeed. The bureaucrat and the clerk need rules and regulations to help them efficiently process high volumes of recurring tasks. But we cannot allow rules and regulations to become the blind arbiter of ethics decisions. The very nature of ethical dilemmas means you are, in all honesty and sincerity, not immediately sure of what to do. Thus, they need to be thought through on an individual basis, as uncomfortable as that may be.
WHOSE NORMS AND VALUES ARE TRUMP?
Some questionable notions have been introduced over the last several years that have muddied the waters surrounding ethics norms. There are two characteristics of this new trend; a clear preference for relativism, and the absence of responsibility to anyone outside of horizontal relationships among ourselves.
These notions contend there are no value systems that are better than others, there are just differences. Therefore, within the constraints of the law, I don’t have to be accountable outside of myself for what I do — only to Joe, and Jim, and Sarah, etc.
This relativism and horizontal focus is very corrosive indeed. If my values don’t approve of entertaining customers with illicit opportunities, but my customer thinks it’s OK, I can still give my customer what he wants because I won’t be offending his value system.
If I believe there is a loving God, that He created the world and us, and He cares that things work as well as possible within the constraints of our free will — then I must accept that God guides us and gives us rules of the road about what makes things go well, and what makes for dysfunction in creation.
If we accept these beliefs, it’s imperative that our consciences, our value systems, and the paradigms that form the basis for our decisions and actions — all of these must be formed by God’s values, God’s priorities, God’s rules.
To choose alternate values, or to allow these values to be eroded by situations, circumstances, and false notions, is an affront to God Himself, and certain to lead us away from Him into despair and failure.
God’s values are sacred, rock solid and clearly marked by God and the Church. Their application can depend somewhat on circumstances, but they must never become so watered down that overwhelming evil is allowed to flourish.
The pressures today on Christian values are enormous. There are many alternative, competing values and priorities that would quickly lead us away from our Redeemer. And they are everywhere: at work, in our children, in the Church and in government.
Paul warned us 2,000 years ago about assaults on God’s values:
“See to it that no one makes a prey of you by philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” (Col 2:8 RSV)
No amount of argumentation about reproductive rights, and when human life begins, will ever trump the words of God in the commandment:
“You shall not kill.” (Ex 20:13 RSV)
No one seriously denies anymore that life begins at conception. Those earlier arguments about lumps of tissue, or growths in the woman’s body, were incredible deceptions from the very beginning. They led many people to revisit and rethink decisions about the sanctity of life that had been held sacred for thousands of years. Abortion was legalized in 1973. Through 2007, an estimated 50 million lives have been lost in the womb.
Ethics problems frequently require that tough decisions be made quickly, usually under pressure. This is especially true in business where many decisions must be made on the spot and verbal exchanges with competitors, suppliers, customers and employees can have serious consequences — both good and bad.
It’s not enough that we have training in ethics discernment and familiarity with God’s values. We need to know the mind of God — be so familiar with His priorities, authority and power that we know Him as well as we might know a brother, a parent or a spouse.
When I go shopping for my wife at Christmas, I know the things she likes, the colors, the sizes and styles because we have been married for over 54 years. Our relationship has matured and deepened to the extent that I know her very well. I don’t have to agonize over a multitude of possibilities. When I see something she would like, I know it right away — because I know her.
THE VACANT THREAT OF CONSEQUENCES
There are ethics decisions that don’t seem to involve significant consequences. Sometimes these slip by us unnoticed. Exaggerated claims about a product’s capabilities are a good example. Stretch the truth a little here, a little there — it doesn’t seem too bad at the time. You risk a dented reputation and unhappy customers if your product fails to perform to the buyer’s expectations. Still, the risk seems small.
However, when the perceived consequences are significant, the real bite of an ethical problem takes hold:
“If I don’t cut corners here on quality, I won’t be able to make deliveries so I can get paid and make that payment to the bank.”
“If I don’t match the clearly outrageous product claims of my competitor, I won’t get the order.”
“If I tell my boss I have a problem, he’ll think I can’t handle it and give the job to someone else.”
“If I don’t abort this baby, my life will be ruined forever.”
Notice how it’s the perceived consequences that make the decision difficult. They force you into considering actions that your value system might otherwise reject. Most of us don’t want to lie, but if telling the truth threatens my welfare, I feel forced to consider alternatives. Then I am vulnerable to a deception that if I don’t lie, cheat, withhold information, cut quality, have an abortion, engage in sexual promiscuity — if I don’t do these things, I will suffer serious and painful consequences. I wont get that raise or promotion, I wont satisfy my fickle desires, my future will be ruined, and so on.
Notice also, the absence of something, or better Someone, from the equation. Many significant decisions are made today without relying on the notion that God loves me, God can heal me, God can free me, God wants to bless me, God can turn this situation around if only I stay close to Him, follow His leading, and keep my integrity. These thoughts are all but silenced because we have been conned by a philosophy that teaches us “I’m my own person”, ignore God, live my life for myself.
The “me first”, godless, revolution that blossomed in the 1960’s, denies any authority except my own. It declares: “I am in charge”, “If it feels good do it”. These concepts erect a giant obelisk — my right to myself. They remove God from the equation of life, and beget all sorts of aberrations in our society.
We have been led away from our Triune God; a loving Father who wants a relationship with us, a Brother who has conquered all the difficulties and weaknesses of our humanity, a Counselor who gives us wisdom and truth, who brings us power and authority for healing, character transformation and deliverance.
Paul writes these chilling words to the Romans about leaving God out of the equation:
“Ever since the creation of the world, …[God’s] invisible attributes of eternal power and divinity have been able to be understood and perceived in what he has made. As a result, …[those who suppress the truth] have no excuse; for although they knew God they did not accord him glory as God or give him thanks. Instead, they became vain in their reasoning, and their senseless minds were darkened. While claiming to be wise, they became fools…And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God handed them over to their undiscerning mind to do what is improper…They are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know the just decree of God that all who practice such things deserve death, they not only do them
but give approval to those who practice them.” (Ro 1:20-22,28,31,32 NAB)
I believe many of us know, deep down in our heart of hearts, that we can’t go it alone. Still, our culture asserts that we can run our lives without God. And, that’s the trap. Not wanting to involve God, we don’t seek Him. Not having sought Him, we don’t have a relationship with Him. And without a relationship with Him, we are disconnected from His counsel and assistance.
Thus, when an ethical problem arises, our assessment of the consequences can be greatly exaggerated, and we are easily overwhelmed — barbecued as it were on a rotisserie of our own making.
What we need is wisdom and freedom from deception — truth to show us the way. Jesus says:
“…If you remain in my word, you will truly be my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (John 8:31,32 NAB)
We are terribly handicapped when we deliberately or unconsciously leave God out of our day-to-day lives. The stories of God’s intervention, God’s healing, God’s deliverance, and God’s transformation of a bad situation into a blessing are legion. In a much larger context Paul writes:
“…where sin increased, grace abounded all the more,…” (Ro 5:20 RSV)
IMPROVING OUR RELATIONSHIP WITH GOD
We are immersed in a broad range of verities and responsibilities: family, career, culture, government and church. ethics dilemmas are usually gut-wrenching and difficult. They abound in both the sacred and the secular areas of our endeavors. To be fully Christian, requires us to use an integrated response in both of these arenas. We call that, integrity.
We are called to be salt, leaven and light that others, by our example and effort, might seek Him. The Kingdom of God must reach throughout commerce, government, family and church to support all those who seek Him and their destiny with the Author of Life. None of us is up to the task without God’s help.
The Catholic Church teaches that God reveals Himself to us in four ways: in Scripture, in the person of Jesus Christ, in the Church and her Magisterium, and in our personal relationship with God. The Holy Spirit is the facilitator of this revelation:
“…the word you hear is not mine but that of the Father who sent me…The Advocate, the holy Spirit that the Father will send in my name — he will teach you everything and remind you of all that [I] told you. (Jn 14:24,26 NAB)
While these four revelation sources are under assault today, the one most absent from our culture is the concept of an active, ongoing, personal relationship with God. It’s telling to note that the importance of a personal relationship with God is a priority in every major renewal movement that has swept through the Church since Vatican II. It’s almost as though the Holy Spirit is trying to say this aspect of our spirituality has withered almost to extinction; that we need to renew it because we need it badly.
This is how Jesus puts it:
“…Whoever loves me will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our dwelling with him.” (Jn 14:23 NAB)
We desperately need guidance in the pressure cooker of day-to-day work life and ethics decisions. What better source of advice and inspiration in the nitty-gritty of work, than God Himself?
The central issue of our lives then, is whether we will submit our wills and hearts to God, or try to maintain our existence outside of God’s rule. The true road to happiness, peace and joy lies in the pursuit of our relationship with God. We must pursue a 24/7 relationship that constantly deepens and matures.
To receive that guidance of the moment we must work at getting to know God as deeply as possible. We must work at a relationship with Him just as earnestly as we would cultivate a relationship with a deeply loved spouse, a loving parent or a close friend. (See Embracing Conflict With Hope, Decisions, Decisions, Decisions and The Gift Of Discernment)
Here are four tips on how to develop that relationship:
- Ask Jesus to be the Lord of your life. Acknowledge your dependence on Him. Give up your right to yourself and give it to Him. Jesus does not expect us to become zombies or mindless robots. Far from it, He wants us to be fully alive and exercising His gifts in us under His direction. In short, you must join Jesus’ company and acknowledge that He is the boss.
- Get to know a lot about God — what are His values, His priorities, how He does things? We spend considerable time learning about business through company policies, trade magazines, business seminars, the Wall Street Journal and so on. In the same way, we must spend considerable time learning about the Author Of Life through the Scripture, Church teachings, and the words and writings of people of faith.
- Spend time communicating with God: In praise where you acknowledge His reality, holiness, and other attributes; in listening to what He has to say to you; and in intercession for your needs and the needs of others.
- Finally, learn how to use the authority and power of God — for your own personal transformation and growth, and for the protection and healing of those entrusted to your care, both in the family and at work.
Follow these four points daily and I guarantee you will grow in wisdom and power in His service. When difficult ethics decisions arise, you may still have character issues to deal with, but you will know what God wants.
St. Paul sums it up this way:
“…in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Ro 8:37-39 NAB)