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 / Fourth Quarter 2001 / Issue 25(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Bottom Line on Ethics

The authors are a management academic at Rice University, Marc Epstein, and a veteran business journalist, Bill Birchard; they draw on a variety of approaches and systems for deepening understanding of the data generated throughout an organization. These approaches include open-book management and the Balanced Scorecard. Their particular contribution, however, is to portray ethics as an institutional infrastructure, above and beyond the judgment of any individual.

They do this by proposing a kind of ethical audit trail — not for professional auditors (like the “social accountability” standard SA8000, which tracks workplace and child-labor practices), but for ordinary managers. Like many such forms of reportage, this audit trail can be set up like a management checklist, in which case it becomes a vehicle for ensuring compliance, controlling people, making workplaces miserable, and driving out creativity. Or it can be set up as a system of inquiry, a set of questions through which managers can develop an ethical sensibility together.

To work through the chapters of Counting What Counts is to look freshly at the financial, operational, and social indicators through which businesses measure themselves — for instance, earnings per share, quality statistics, and employee turnover — with an eye toward the benefits of shareholders, customers, employees, and communities, respectively. The most unfamiliar measures, and the ones requiring the most thought, are the social measures: corporate reputation, the quality of education in communities affected by the company, and data on the diversity of the work force.

Underneath all of this is the basic question: As businesspeople, to whom are we accountable and for what? The answer that any company develops is probably less important than the simple act of taking the question seriously.

A Firm Persuasion
To assess the ethical implications of the numbers, however, a highly developed degree of personal awareness is required. Managers must look beyond quantitative reports, and, more importantly, beyond the superficial understanding of a subject that people consider acceptable when they are under pressure.

Hence the value of Crossing the Unknown Sea: Work as a Pilgrimage of Identity (Putnam Publishing Group, 2001), poet and lecturer David Whyte’s second book of essays for a corporate audience. Mr. Whyte’s previous book, The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America (Doubleday Currency, 1994), was self-important and irritating, but it was also popular with businesspeople, for good reason. It described the experience of work precisely as many people feel it: a place where it is difficult to be oneself.

Crossing the Unknown Sea goes deeper. It is an exploratory voyage, charting the inner resources available to people facing ambiguity, which, by definition, includes managers who have to make ethical decisions. It is particularly valuable for people who assume that their inner and emotional resources (and those of their colleagues) are unimportant. This is a guide for developing what the poet William Blake called “a firm persuasion,” or the in-depth knowledge of the world that comes from cultivating a heightened sensitivity to everything around us.

We read of a Turkish water-utility executive who spends weeks helping his region recover from an earthquake. Amid this terrible tragedy, he wonders if he will ever feel so fulfilled again at work. We listen to one of Great Britain’s most accomplished landscape architects describe how, facedown in the mud of a large window box during a fumbled suicide attempt, he finds his calling and suddenly becomes keenly aware of his future. And we experience the uncanny moment of a near-death experience from a freak wave on the Galápagos Islands, and the even more uncanny aftermath, when Mr. Whyte learns exactly how much his fate depends on, of all things, his mother’s intuition. The reader comes away from these stories with an appreciation for the unseen forces that exist in every life, influencing our trajectories, and an appreciation for the impossibility of controlling them.

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