Benchmark Ethics: Trust Needs Trustworthy

In all of our calls for a recovery of trust in the business environment, let us not forget the concept of trustworthy. I see four major tests for trustworthiness. While it is easy to judge today’s fallen business leaders negatively by these criteria (“shooting fish in a barrel,” some would say), I would emphasize that labor leaders, politicians, journalists … and you and I … must not be exempted from these same standards.

First, trustworthy people (and organizations) are open. Secrecy, hiding, and evasion are warning signs. Trust is warranted by transparency and honest, full disclosure. CEOs who hide their compensation agreements … manufacturers who hide adverse safety data on their products … companies that create barriers instead of pathways for customer service … job applicants who paper over their true past … journalists who secretly tape confidential conversations (two wrongs don’t make a right!) … these are examples of a lack of trustworthiness. A very wise teacher once observed: “People love darkness rather than light because their deeds are evil.”

Second, trustworthy people share risks. One of the most shameful sins of some Enron leaders was their cashing out of the company, knowing it was going down, while employees down the line were stuck losing their retirement along with their monthly sustenance. Lying to everyone, all the while, that “our company future has never looked brighter” was an additional sucker punch to their loyal work force. Our culture used to admire the proverbial captain who would go down with his ship rather than take any passenger’s place in the lifeboat. The morality of shared risk requires that if employees lose their houses, jobs, and retirement savings when a business fails, leaders should share the same fate and not be protected by the legal structure of the corporation — or a choice to protect oneself while one’s people suffer. If leaders stand to gain huge rewards, they should be liable for comparably huge losses. Of course the flip side of this is also important: employees, customers, attorneys, journalists, and others can sometimes engage in reckless, irresponsible words and deeds at little or no risk to themselves — but with serious, irreversible consequences for others. Risk-sharing must go both ways if trustworthiness is to reign.

Third, trustworthiness requires knowledge. The ignorant do not deserve to be trusted. If we want trust to flourish, technologists and managers must know and understand each other a lot better. Knowledge is grounds for trust; ignorance is grounds for caution. This includes not only business management and technical knowledge but knowledge of history and culture. A boss who really knows what it is like to work in the trenches or be out of work has earned some trust. A global business leader who tries hard to understand other cultures and languages deserves some trust. Labor leaders who really make the effort to understand the broader business dynamics of successful companies earn trust.

Fourth, trustworthy people share power. Those with too much power cannot be trusted. “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Lord Acton’s famous dictum is as true now as ever. Nothing in human nature or relationships has changed. Have yesterday’s business hierarchies been flattened? Has real authority been widely distributed throughout organizations? The pyramid is steeper than ever before! Middle management has been cut. Power (and compensation) has been concentrated at the top to an extraordinary degree.

This is incredibly dangerous. Recent business scandals show how much damage can be done by a small group of powerful leaders. The powerful can shield themselves from effective criticism and accountability. They are often surrounded by sycophantic “yes” people, whether they want it or not. Power needs to be contested and sometimes reduced. How? As inept and corrupt as government and labor unions have sometimes been, they have often played essential roles in holding corporate power accountable and in check. Competitive free markets can help balance and distribute power — but such free competition is not automatic and may be undercut by monopolies and unfair business practices.

Independent journalists also play a key role in contesting power and holding it accountable — which is why the big media conglomerates are one of the most ominous developments in our era. If all of these counter-forces fail to counter-balance and check the corruption of corporate power, the inevitable result will be massive protest by popular movements. There is one other possibility … powerful leaders choose to be accountable and to distribute real power and authority to others. Trust can be reborn out of such a voluntary sharing of power and prerogative. What future will we choose.

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.