The usual answer is that good ethics is good business. In the long run, businesses that pay attention to ethics as well as law do better; they are viewed more favorably by customers. But this is a difficult claim to measure scientifically, because “the long run” is an indistinct period of time and because there are as yet no generally accepted criteria by which ethical excellence can be measured. In addition, life is still lived in the short run, and there are many occasions when something short of perfect conduct is a lot more profitable.
Some years ago, Royal Dutch/Shell (one of the world’s largest companies) found that it was in deep trouble with the public for its apparent carelessness with the environment and human rights. Consumers were boycotting and investors were getting frightened, so the company took a long, hard look at its ethic of short-term profit maximization. Since then, changes have been made. The CEO told one group of business ethicists that the uproar had taken them by surprise; they thought they had done everything right, but it seemed there was a “ghost in the machine.” That ghost was consumers, NGOs, and the media, all of whom objected to the company’s seeming lack of moral sensitivity.
The market does respond to unethical behavior. In Corporations and Corporate Governance , you will read about the Sears Auto Centers case. The loss of goodwill toward Sears Auto Centers was real, even though the total amount of money lost cannot be clearly accounted for. Years later, there are people who will not go near a Sears Auto Center; the customers who lost trust in the company will never return, and many of their children may avoid Sears Auto Centers as well.
The Arthur Andersen story is even more dramatic. A major accounting firm, Andersen worked closely with Enron in hiding its various losses through creative accounting measures. Suspiciously, Andersen’s Houston office also did some shredding around the clock, appearing to cover up what it was doing for Enron. A criminal case based on this shredding resulted in a conviction, later overturned by the Supreme Court. But it was too late. Even before the conviction, many clients had found other accounting firms that were not under suspicion, and the Supreme Court’s reversal came too late to save the company. Even without the conviction, Andersen would have lost significant market share.
The irony of Andersen as a poster child for overly aggressive accounting practices is that the man who founded the firm built it on integrity and straightforward practices. “Think straight, talk straight” was the company’s motto. Andersen established the company’s reputation for integrity over a hundred years ago by refusing to play numbers games for a potentially lucrative client.
Maximizing profits while being legally compliant is not a very inspiring goal for a business. People in an organization need some quality or excellence to strive for. By focusing on pushing the edge of what is legal, by looking for loopholes in the law that would help create short-term financial gain, companies have often learned that in the long term they are not actually satisfying the market, the shareholders, the suppliers, or the community generally.
Legal compliance is not the same as acting ethically. Your reputation, individually or corporately, depends on how others regard your actions. Goodwill is hard to measure or quantify, but it is real nonetheless and can best be protected by acting ethically.
- Think of a person who did something morally wrong, at least to your way of thinking. What was it? Explain to a friend of yours—or a classmate—why you think it was wrong. Does your friend agree? Why or why not? What is the basic principle that forms the basis for your judgment that it was wrong?
- Think of a person who did something morally right, at least to your way of thinking. (This is not a matter of finding something they did well, like efficiently changing a tire, but something good.) What was it? Explain to a friend of yours—or a classmate—why you think it was right. Does your friend agree? Why or why not? What is the basic principle that forms the basis for your judgment that it was right?
- Think of an action by a business organization (sole proprietor, partnership, or corporation) that was legal but still strikes you as wrong. What was it? Why do you think it was wrong?
- Think of an act by an individual or a corporation that is ethical but not legal. Compare your answer with those of your classmates: were you more likely to find an example from individual action or corporate action? Do you have any thoughts as to why?