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Essay: Three Causes of Ethical Lapse in Today’s Business

Most people I know in business truly desire to act ethically. I include myself in this group. I have also observed, however, that most (including myself) regularly fail to live up to even the standards we choose to set for ourselves. Why is this so? While there are no doubt a host of theological and philosophical answers to this question, I would identify three pragmatic factors that have contributed to my own ethical lapses over the years: “speed”, “spin,” and “stuff.”

Speed

Much has been written about the accelerating pace of business. Margins are continually being squeezed and “efficiency” has become a higher business priority than ever before. Since 1948, per worker productivity in United States has more than doubled. More and more is being accomplished in less and less time. Signs of this are everywhere. From the telephone on the wall next to the toilet in the hotel room (”making every minute count”) to the businessperson running to a meeting wearing a headset connected to a wireless device (”multitasking”), visual reminders of our need not to waste a moment abound.

When I first started in law practice in the early 1980s, we would mail drafts of loan documents to the borrower’s counsel. Since mail delivery could take one to three days, there was no specific time by which the drafts had to be completed. If the documents were not finished by the end of the day they could be finished the next morning and put in the noon mail.

With the advent of Federal Express, a good deal of this flexibility disappeared. Now I knew that if I could place the documents in a box in the basement of my building at the latest by 5:42 PM then they “absolutely, positively” would be in the hands of the borrower’s attorney by 10:30 AM the next morning. Not only did I know this, but my clients knew this as well. This led to substantial pressure to complete documents within the designated day and often ended up with late afternoon sessions where my secretary and I were sitting on the floor frantically stuffing documents into the Federal Express envelopes and racing to beat the courier van.

Then came the fax machine. Now I would regularly receive phone calls from clients advising me that they had just faxed me a document and requesting that I review it and get back to them within a couple of hours. This made the flexibility afforded by the old courier services seem like a luxury. Then came e-mail. The transmission of documents was now virtually simultaneous with their receipt. Instantaneous transmission came with the embedded expectation that there would be near-instantaneous review and response. Everything was going faster and faster. By the time I left the law firm, several of my partners were experimenting with “same-time” software that would allow them to work on a document at the same time that their client, sitting in a remote location, could watch the changes on his or her screen. This seems tantamount to practicing law with someone sitting in your lap.

The problem with all of this speed is that as I squeezed more and more into each minute, I was squeezing out time for reflection. What I was losing was the opportunity to stand back and assess whether what I was doing made sense, whether I was doing it in the best possible way, and whether it was even good to be doing it. Without time for reflection, ethical practices and integrity become impossible. As Stephen Carter has written, “ … we do not have time to live according to our model of right and wrong, which means, simply put, that we do not have time for lives of integrity” (Integrity, 1996, p.29).

Spin

Spin is a phrase I first heard in the context of politics. After two politicians would debate, their aides would meet with the media and try to replay the debate in a manner most favorable to their candidate. This “spinning” of facts was widely accepted and arguably amounted to nothing more than trying to “put the best foot forward.” As a lawyer, a significant portion of my job was to “spin” facts for the benefit of my clients. Whether I was negotiating a contract or presenting an argument to a judge, I would be expected to highlight those facts most favorable to my client’s position while downplaying those aspects of the case that might prove detrimental. Nor is “spin” confined to politics and law. Obviously, sales, promotions, business negotiations and countless other business activities are propelled along by spin. In and of itself, I see nothing unethical about “spinning.”
The problem is, however, that there is so much “spinning” going on that is often difficult to know when to stop. I have found myself routinely “spinning” right over the line.

I recall one incident when a prospective client contacted me to ask about my experience with “reverse triangular mergers.” In fact, I had no experience with this particular type of merger although I knew that there was no magic to the proposed structure, that I had handled a number of other merger transactions, and that I had a number of partners who had handled reverse triangular mergers. In short, I was confident that I could do the job and was eager to get the work. So, I went into “spin” mode. Rapidly I pointed out my prior experience with mergers in general, highlighted my firm’s overall experience and sought to assure the prospective client that I could indeed handle this project for him. He interrupted me in the middle of the “spin” however and again specifically asked “have you ever handled a reverse triangular merger?” I was so caught up in “spin” mode that I simply answered “yes.”

That night I felt awful. I realized that I had lied to this new client. One of the hardest things that I ever had to do in my practice was to call this client back the next morning and admit that I had misled him.

Spinning becomes a habit. In a culture that generally despises weakness, it is an easy habit to cultivate. We focus on making ourselves look better than we really are. We “cover” our mistakes, inexperience, and weakness with spin. Within limits, this may be an appropriate business activity. But like most habits, it is often difficult to know how to hold it within limits.

Stuff

The third, and probably most powerful adversary of ethical business practices in our culture is our collective obsession with the accumulation of “stuff.” We are living at a time unprecedented in history. Never before has a culture so rapidly exchanged free time for more things. As noted above, our per hour productivity has more than doubled since the end of World War II. What this means is that if we were willing to live at the lifestyle prevalent at the end of the War we could now take every other year off with pay! Instead, we are rapidly expanding our working hours. Since 1969 the average American worker has added more than an additional month’s worth of work to each calendar year. This compulsion to work is tied directly to our obsession with the accumulation of more and more things, more and more wealth.

This obsession distorts our capacity to behave ethically in variety of ways. For one, it tends to make us blind to people who are not like us. As the economic gap between others and us grows, it becomes harder and harder to “see” them. And unfortunately, quite often, the people who are becoming invisible to us are the necessary and proper objects of our ethical obligations.

Second, the accumulation of wealth tends to create a desire that it cannot fulfill: the desire for “a little bit more.” I once read the results of a survey of individuals scattered across the socio-economic spectrum ranging from the near homeless to senior officers in Fortune 500 companies. These individuals were asked two questions. First, “do you now make enough to be content?” All up-and-down the economic spectrum, the answer was “no.” Then the participants were asked whether they would be content if they could make just five percent more. All up-and-down the spectrum, the answer was “yes.” Just a little bit more.

One might guess that with larger and larger fortunes, the marginal utility of each next dollar would decrease. In fact, my experience is that the desire for enhanced accumulations tends to be stronger among the wealthier. In the words of the ancient Hebrew Scriptures, “Whoever loves money never has money enough; whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with his income. This too is meaningless.”

Another ethics-defeating feature of wealth accumulation is the capacity for money to become the measure of our individual worth. Often we will ask “what’s he worth?” by which we mean, “how much money does he have?” Once our checkbook becomes closely identified with our fundamental worth, the temptation to cut ethical corners grows enormously.

Strategems

Let me close by suggesting three strategies that have been helpful to me in addressing the adverse effects of speed, spin and stuff. First, with respect to speed, I have found it useful to develop a discipline that insists upon one full day every week of nonproductive, non-efficient activity. This is a day that is set aside for leisure and reflection, to reaffirm that I am more than just the work that I produce. In my faith tradition such a day is referred to as a “Sabbath” but one need not participate in the religious aspects of such a celebration to enjoy many of its associated benefits.

Second, with respect to spin, I have found it useful to enter into relationships where I am regularly afforded the opportunity to acknowledge my shortcomings and to recount in unflattering terms my recent failures. By getting in the habit of sharing my failures with friends, I am reminded that the care and love of others is not dependent upon my ability to produce a constant stream of successes. I need not “spin” the facts to secure acceptance or affirmation.

Finally, with respect to “stuff” the most useful stratagem that I have employed is the simplest. I have developed the habit of giving money away regularly and frequently. I find that the act of giving (rather than the amount of giving) is most helpful. Whenever I give money away, I am, in effect, declaring that money does not define my intrinsic worth.

We are at a time in history when business ethics is once again a “hot” topic. In addition to learning macro-level lessons from Enron and its progeny, we can also profitably use this time to assess our own micro-level ethics and to begin to build strategies that will enable us to resist the ethics-deflecting temptations of speed, spin and stuff.

Jeffrey B. Van Duzer (J.D., Yale) became dean of the School of Business and Economics at Seattle Pacific University in August of 2001 after twenty years of law practice at Davis Wright Tremain in Seattle.

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