Benchmark Ethics: No Integrity, No Trust; No Trust, No Business

It looks now as though Firestone executives were aware of the dangerous risks of their defective tires and chose to sit on that information rather than disclose it right away. Would you like to be part of the Firestone management team or board for the next year or two?

How different Johnson and Johnson’s response was when the Tylenol drug scare occurred a few years ago: Johnson and Johnson immediately ordered all Tylenol pulled from drug store shelves across America with no attempt at a cover-up and no excuses.

Now, we don’t yet know the whole story at Firestone and Ford so it is much too early to make a final judgment on the way things were handled. But, this episode does remind of us of how essential trust is to business.

Rational people usually want to see some facts and evidence before they make decisions.

However, there is no such thing as airtight, compelling evidence preceding every move we make. Everything cannot be proved or guaranteed in advance. We cannot protect ourselves to the point of invulnerability. We have to weigh whatever evidence and experience we have and then trust those with whom we deal. When things turn out to be different than what we were promised or led to expect, when our trust is broken, we usually take our business elsewhere.

Without trust, we cannot do business. This is both intuitively and experientially clear, but if you would like to review the argument in depth see the brilliant study by Rand Corporation social scientist Francis Fukuyama, Trust: The Social Virtues and the Creation of Prosperity (New York: Free Press, 1995).

One of the most important foundations of trust is integrity. No integrity, no trust. Yale Law School Professor Stephen L. Carter defined integrity as (1) discerning what is right and wrong, (2) acting on what you have discerned, even at personal cost, and (3) saying openly that you are acting on your understanding of right and wrong (Integrity, New York: Basic Books, 1996). The key features of integrity have to do with the consistency, the “integration,” of what is inside with what is outside, of what is thought, known, and believed with what is said and done.

Machiavelli and his kind, on the other hand, have promoted a calculated deception of others as the way to power. It is not important to “be” something, they say. What is important is to “seem to be” something. In the short term, the Machiavellians may ring up some successes. Longer term they do not succeed in politics or business unless they acquire totalitarian power and can crush out all freedom.

But, we live in a time when freedom is so widely and intensely valued that attempts to restrict it are very unlikely to succeed. Since success cannot be achieved simply by crushing others into submission, it will have to be won through persuasion. And, without integrity, individuals and companies will, over time, fail to persuade others to do business with them.

Why should we make sure to seek integrity and demonstrate it in our personal lives and careers? Why should we promote it and demand it in our companies? First of all, it makes life simpler: if we live with integrity we are relieved from having always to be covering our tracks, maintaining a facade, or looking over our shoulder. Some of us also sleep better at the end of the day!

Most ethical virtues and principles also pay off in our social and work relationships as well as in our personal life. Business is something that takes place in the arena of human relationships. And in human relationships there can be no trust without integrity. Without trust there can be no business.

Integrity and trust take a long time to build — though they can be destroyed in a moment. Among our personal or corporate assets they are as precious as anything else we could possible list.

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.