Benchmark Ethics: Aligning Character, Rules, and Corporate Mission

By David W. Gill

Many of our contemporaries think that ethics is only about rules, especially ones telling us what not to do. The pejorative terms “legalistic” and “moralistic” capture the worst of this impression.

What good are rules? Their main virtues are clarity and specificity. An ethics statement might be precise: “Do not refer to fellow workers as ‘baby,’ ‘hunk,’ or other sexual or romantic terms of familiarity.” Some rules have the additional force of law (e.g., against discrimination), while others provide moral guidance beyond the point where the law ends. Negatively stated rules often function like warning signs, alerting us to problems to be avoided. Positively stated rules (e.g., “Always greet personally every customer who comes through our doors”) are best seen as directions on how to get to our missional statement.

Good directions may on occasion say, “Don’t turn on Green Street,” because turning on Green Street might be a common error worth warning people about. Most of the time, though, good directions will be positive. “If you want to get to Evanston, go north on…”

In today’s business climate, technology is transforming everything from management practices to organizational patterns, from manufacturing to marketing. In this fluid context, we need to review our ethics codes to keep them as up-to-date as possible with respect both to the negative rules (warnings of what to avoid) and the positive rules (guidelines for our decisions and actions). Vigilance and careful attention are required or our ethics statements will become passé. This swirling pace of change also makes us realize the importance of the deeper, broader principles behind our specific rules. A principle is general and broadly applicable (e.g., “Don’t do to others what you wouldn’t want them to do to you”), covering almost everything. Under the umbrella of a principle, we can find broad rules (e.g., “Don’t steal”), and then, in turn, specific rules (e.g., “Don’t photocopy a colleague’s drawing without permission,” which protects against a specific kind of theft).

Principles and rules come at different levels of generality and specificity. When the specifics of our lives and work are in a state of flux, as in our technological era, the deeper principles will help us keep ethically on track.

There is a level deeper than principles: character. Character is who we are, not just what we do in a situation. Character includes our capacity to carry out our rules and principles and achieve our mission. Our character is described in terms of key, ongoing traits (“characteristics”), habits, inclinations, dispositions, powers, and potentials.

A football analogy helps here. A successful team must have well-designed plays that lead it to the end zone to score points. But the athletes cannot win merely by knowing good plays in their heads. They must also have the physical conditions to carry out the plays. They need strength, speed, stamina, flexibility, and so on. They need to develop the ability to work together, to adapt quickly to shifts, to finesse specific plays to fit immediate circumstances.

If players and teams haven’t trained and practiced enough and developed such traits, the best plays fall flat.

So it is with ethics. The best rules and principles will not lead to morally excellent behavior and the achievement of the business mission unless there is good individual character and corporate culture. Given the accelerating pace of technological change, what personal and organizational character traits will be essential to doing the right thing in business?

Benchmark ethics means paying attention to these character and culture questions. What kind of character are we developing? Is it the kind that will choose wisely and act courageously under fire or temptation? Or is it the kind that gets used to cutting corners, bailing out on commitments, betraying confidences, and evading responsibility?

Is our corporate culture open, welcoming, caring of customers, respectful of those with less power, intent on quality?

Or is it cold and uncaring, self-centered, ignorant of peoples’ names and needs, tolerant of shoddy, short-lived products, isolating to workers, and so on?

In the book Built to Last, James Collins and Jerry Porras emphasize what they call “alignment.” Many companies are undermined by major misalignments. Business success with ethical excellence requires careful alignment of three things: (1) a compelling, inspiring mission (the good at which we aim), (2) well-chosen, clearly defined ethical guidelines (a code of basic directions on how to do the right thing and achieve our mission), and (3) strong, well-developed personal character and corporate culture (the habits, capacities, and inclinations that enable us to perform what we know to be right). Such alignment is what benchmark ethics is about.

David W. Gill was co-founder of IBTE and author of Benchmark Ethics, a regular article in the first 32 issues of Ethix. After eight years of writing, speaking, teaching, and consulting in the Bay Area of California, he joined the faculty of Gordon-Conwell Theological Center (South Hampton, Mass.) in 2010, where he is also Director of the Mockler Center for Faith and Ethics in the Workplace.