Benchmark Ethics: The Market Made Me Do It

Part of my summer reading was Arianna Huffington’s new book Pigs at the Trough: How Corporate Greed and Political Corruption are Undermining America (Crown, 2003). Huffington pulls no punches. The language she uses, beginning with the book title, will amuse some and offend others, but her case is compelling. The book is full of statistics and stories that were widely reported in magazines such as Business Week, Fortune, and the Wall Street Journal.

Huffington brings together into one narrative many of the episodes of excess, dishonesty, greed, and corruption we have been hearing about these past three or four years. The list of companies and business leaders is long and depressing. Even some business leaders unscathed by formal corruption come across badly when their leadership styles and compensation packages are laid alongside their performance. Even if it is legal, even if it is common practice, it remains morally repugnant to many observers when the top leaders of an organization going through very hard times increase their own wealth and serve their own personal interest—while their investors and employees are made to suffer extreme hardship.

Whatever happened to those old captains who were the last to leave a sinking ship and get on a lifeboat? That sort of heroic behavior is 180 degrees removed from many of the captains of industry described by Huffington.

Why has all of this happened? I agree with Huffington that personal greed and selfishness are at the core. But the explanation (or rationalization) that I often hear is more like “we operate the way our competitors do—that is just the way the system works. We can’t buck the system.” This is “the market made me do it” excuse.

Why do we advertise this way? Why do we cut back on employee benefits that way? Why do we pay executive compensation this way? Why do we downsize that way? Outsource to that country? Produce or sell these products? It is market reality: we must do these things to stay in business, stay profitable, recruit top talent, etc. Maybe it is greed down deep, but the justification is usually that this is today’s business reality. The market makes us do it.

I don’t know of any reputable ethical system or philosophy anywhere that says that the right thing to do is determined solely by what others around us are doing (or by what markets are doing). So there is no moral justification for following existing business and management patterns that are unfair or unjust. Arianna Huffington does not need to be provided with material for a sequel to Pigs at the Trough.

I also read The Soul of the Firm (HarperBusiness, 1996) by C. William Pollard, former chairman and CEO of The ServiceMaster Company. At the time of the writing of the book, ServiceMaster was a Fortune 1000 public company traded on the NYSE, employing over 200,000 people in thirty countries. ServiceMaster provides a wide variety of basic services such as janitorial and landscaping for schools, hospitals, businesses and homes.

Here is a successful company that is far from “pigs at the trough.” Profit, Pollard says, is a means, not an end. Profit is a measure of the effectiveness of company efforts. But people have a value that cannot be accounted for by money alone (or primarily). “Recognizing the potential, dignity, and worth of the individual has been one of the most important factors of the success and growth of our company” (p. 31). And the financial success of the company is shared with employees. ServiceMaster is not about enriching an elite by squeezing customers and employees. It doesn’t matter what the market or popular thinking say to the contrary.

Some of Pollard’s best paragraphs describe the way ServiceMaster tries to “harness the power of purpose.” Mission and purpose provide inspiration and meaning but also “a way of seeking to do what is right and avoiding what is wrong. The firm needs a moral reference point, a compass heading that provides guidance for the way things are done” (p. 49).

Pollard and ServiceMaster provide a reminder that, despite all the “oinking” that is in the news, there are good and successful companies that are not governed by greed and do not take the low road and excuse themselves by saying “the market made me do it.” For them, “the mission made me do it” is the path to business success and ethical excellence.

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.