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Published: October 1, 2001

 
 

The Bottom Line on Ethics

In this situation, all a businessperson can do is act on hunches. Some internal reformers try to chart an ethical course for their companies through alliances with nonprofits, through public relations campaigns, or by proclaiming a bold new goal with the hope of inspiring everyone’s involvement. But these efforts tend to get swallowed up in day-to-day pressures, because there are no reliable theories or tools to help businesses simultaneously do well and do good.

What might such theories look like? Three new books, coming from three very different directions, offer some clues. They suggest the types of changes that would have to take place — in the profession of management, in the measurement of business results, and within the hearts and minds of individual managers — for ethically oriented systems to truly take root.

Think Like Professionals
Good Work: When Excellence and Ethics Meet (Basic Books, 2001) is based on an extensive five-year study by research labs at Harvard University, Stanford University, and Claremont College. It suggests that business won’t truly be ethical until business management becomes a profession with the same kind of pedigree and code of ethics as, say, medicine or law.

The coauthors of Good Work are three of today’s most influential psychologists: Howard Gardner, author of eminent work on intelligence, leadership, and education; Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, whose book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper & Row, 1990) has been used as an argument on behalf of immersion in work as a vehicle for high performance and quality of life; and William Damon, author of The Moral Child: Nurturing Children’s Natural Moral Growth (Macmillan, 1990) and spokesman against the “self-esteem”-style of indulgent child rearing. In the early 1990s, these three individuals decided to investigate the slippage of ethical standards in the culture at large in America, particularly in the professions they knew well: law, medicine, theater, higher education, and philanthropy.

They chose two professions to examine in detail: genetic research and journalism. They interviewed practitioners in depth about the reasons for the decisions they made and the ethical questions they faced. Their conclusion: One cannot be ethical in a vacuum. The heart of a profession is precisely those traditions, customs, and longstanding attitudes that become so ingrained that they prevent us from falling prey to destructive temptations.

One anecdote in Good Work portrays George Packer Berry, dean of Harvard Medical School in the early 1950s, lecturing incoming freshmen: “A profession is … a code of behavior above the marketplace. You do not lie to your patients. You do not deceive them. You do not overcharge them, and you do not abandon them.” Similarly, in journalism, every editor and writer follows certain codes, such as the “Chinese Wall” between the newsroom and the advertising office. When these standards are violated (as they were at the Los Angeles Times a couple of years ago when a new publisher tried to harmonize the two sides), professional perspective is the last line of defense. This is why professionals seem so persnickety about their codes of conduct. When professionals become creative with their ethics, they immediately and visibly lose credibility.

Good Work deals with the ethics of corporate managers only in passing, which is a serious limitation in the book. The authors say that businesses will become ethical only when traditions are “embodied by teachers, mentors, or paragons whom you admire and from whom you have learned.” But business can never be a traditional profession like law or medicine. Why can’t business follow Dean Berry’s advice and stand above the marketplace? Because it is the marketplace.

Measures That Matter
The closest thing there is to a professional tradition of business ethics is, in fact, the discipline of accounting. Counting What Counts: Turning Corporate Accountability to Competitive Advantage (Perseus Books, 1999) represents a practical and valuable guide to business ethics, precisely because it focuses on the long-term impact of the measures that businesses use — and the measures they avoid.

 
 
 
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