Ethics in the business arena boils down to black and white

Sam Waltz, Founding Publisher
Sam Waltz, Founding Publisher

Ethics are pretty much a black and white matter.

Certainly, some grey may exist at the margins. And that may be sufficient for some to misjudge their choices, actions or behaviors.

That occurred to me as Today Media CEO Rob Martinelli, DBT Executive Editor Mike Mika and I joined more than 500 business and civic leaders at the 30th annual Delaware Prayer Breakfast a few days ago.

It’s put on at the Chase Center by the Delaware Leadership Foundation, a steering committee of Christian laity, but it includes senior elected officials (Sen. Carper, Gov. Markell attended) as well as clergy (my own recently retired pastor Bo Matthews was honored).

David Akers, the all-time leading scorer for the Philadelphia Eagles and six-time NFL Pro Bowl kicker, was featured with a testimony of his faith. He’s the author of “Winning In Spite Of” (2015).

In his comments, Akers, a devout Christian, husband and father of three, now living in the Nashville area, focused on the role of faith in his life. Relying on his career as a metaphor for the challenges in navigating life, he focused on what he called “the 3 Ps: perseverance, perspective and personnel.”

Since this is not a sports pub, I’ll skip the obvious trials of any particular professional athlete, particularly a professional football kicker whose career can be ended on any given Sunday by a failure to perform.

Akers’ focus, though, on personnel gives us an opportunity to focus on what I’d call the public morality of business.

Because the scourge of political correctness appears to have chased faith from the public square, whether in government, commerce, business or the workplace, too often today’s leaders find themselves responding to crises that stem from a lack of ethics.

It is faith that has given Judeo-Christian cultures a source of ethics, found both in the Old Testament’s Ten Commandments, as well as in New Testament guides to living. Parallels are found in other monotheistic faiths, as well as other cultures.

But, when such guides are driven from the public square, too often behavior tends to devolve to the lowest common denominator, whether the minimalism of a legal one or the flexibility of a relativist one. Or, too often, none at all, because little or nothing seems wrong any more.

But, since this is a business newspaper, with a business audience, we should be asking, “What does this mean to me? What does it say about how I should live?”

As a result, as I listened to Akers, I thought a bit about Volkswagen (and Audi) diesel cheating scandal, about drug pricing, about the banking crisis that underpinned the recession, the current fantasy football wagering scandal, and others.

If someone does not go to prison for the Volkswagen diesel cheating scandal, as business leaders, we all should be disappointed. In all likelihood, several should pay with loss of their freedom and fortunes, and perhaps at senior levels.

In his memoir, “The Courage to Act,” just out this month, former Fed chief Ben Bernanke displays a sense of turmoil that bankers at the root of the 2007-08 crash that led to the recession should have gone to jail. I think of Countrywide Mortgage and its leader Angelo Mozilla.

Even our hometown, of course, has been touched when prominent businessmen across the state have been called to answer in the docks of criminal justice.

And while it may not have violated any workplace rules or public laws at the time, the sports betting issues reveal huge ethical issues.

That list is long, and it can take up several pages here.

We as business leaders too often seek less accountability to a public interest, in terms of regulation under law, when in fact we perhaps should be seeking more in many instances, and insisting on prosecutions when they seem warranted.

I’m not certain what otherwise can correct the corruption of business practices. Although only a tiny fraction of all business practices, such abuse gives all of business “a black eye” becoming a reason for cynicism and skepticism about business ethics overall. And it undermines the public confidence in business so necessary for a free but regulated marketplace like ours to survive.

When I wonder why as leaders we don’t ask for more of our colleagues, I’m left often with two thoughts. First, because of its roots in faith-based ideology, the notion of inherent wrongs (and rights) becomes too squishy for many, too uncomfortable, because PC has driven it from everyday dialogue.

Second, because each of us is human, and each of us makes mistakes, every day in all likelihood, we too often may be hindered by a “there but by the grace of God go I” modesty in our thinking, and in our demands for a higher level of business behavior. None of us wants our own mistakes to be brandished like a sword of hypocrisy in our own faces.

In the 1987 film classic, “Broadcast News,” also featuring Albert Brooks, near the climax of the film, in an airport scene, Holly Hunter confronts dim-witted but “pretty-boy” newscaster William Hurt, after she’s just discovered what she believes to be an ethical breach in an attention-getting news story he did.

“You just totally crossed the line!” Hunter angrily storms at Hurt.

“They keep moving the little sucker, don’t they!” Hurt retorts, not quite understanding the ethical fault line that troubled Hunter.

Actually, for the most part, they don’t keep moving it. Rather, it’s just that each of us encounter new situations that demand the best of us. And too often we give less. As Akers would remind us, it’s a personal choice in choosing how we navigate life.

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