The Golden Age of Ethical Business?

Is this the Golden Age of ethical business?

Yes, I’m serious. Bear with me.

Consider first the values manifested in the modern workplace. Workplaces today, while still far from perfect, are less sexist, less racist, and generally more civilized and humane than at any time in history. Yes, many workplaces are still less-than-great. Some are downright bad. But ask yourself this: when, generally, were they better?

Consider also that in 2010, businesses are more transparent and accountable — due in no small part, of course, to the effects of smart regulation and the advocacy work of NGOs and corporate watchdogs — than ever before. The public is paying attention, and between news agencies and the internet they have access to a lot of information about corporate behaviour. Corporations know that, and are by and large responding. We live in an era in which “Corporate Ethics Officer” is an actual job title, and in which entire businesses are built on the idea that consumers care about how ethical the companies they buy from are.

Now, you may ask, what about all those scandals? Well, I noted above that the media and internet are important sources of information. But while the media in particular are a vital source of information about corporate behaviour, it’s important not to mistake trends in reporting as trends in the world. If you judge only by what you see and read in the news, you’d think that violent crime is up (but it’s not) and that flying is dangerous (but it’s not). The fact that more corporate scandals are reported isn’t really evidence that more corporate scandals are happening. And even if it were the case that more wrongdoing is going on at high levels in the world of business, that doesn’t mean that business in general is any less ethical than it was 20 or 50 years ago. Scandals too easily obscure the fact that throughout North America, there are millions of people, working at tens of thousands of companies, making good, honest, ethical decisions day in and day out.

Of course, we can’t literally declare this the “Golden Age.” Normally the “Golden Age” of anything is only declared after the fact. Time, as they say, will tell. And if things go well, businesses may be even more ethical in 10 or 20 years than they are now. We all certainly hope so. But still I’m willing to advance the thesis for discussion that business today, in 2010, is more ethical than it’s ever been in human history.

Now, the rosy picture I’ve painted above is no reason for complacency. There are challenges ahead. Lots still needs to change. It’s important to keep business ethics on the agenda, both in the corporate world and in the public sphere. But that needn’t obscure the good that’s been done. In fact, it’s crucial that we keep in mind that past efforts to improve the ethics of business have met with at least some success. Past success, after all, is likely a crucial part of maintaining hope for an even brighter future.

———-
(This blog entry is inspired by comments I’ve prepared for this event, put on by The Economist, and which I’m speaking at today: Corporate Citizenship 2010: Doing Well by Doing Good.)

11 comments so far

  1. John M on

    Yes I can see you’re serious. Alas I’m not the sort of blogger who gets to rub shoulders very often with the likes of Ms Powell, but should you happen to run into Greg Ip at the coffee break (coffee break?) after your panel you might just mention that I really enjoyed transcribing his DC presentation from last Oct 9th.

    With regards to your “golden age,” I’d just like to assert that it is indeed critical how the ship’s company is behaving itself, but the moral compass bearing of that pointy thing in the front is also important.

  2. jilly on

    Known negative environmental effects?

    Known negative human and animal health effects?

    Exploitation of third world labour forces?

    I really o think that declaring a golden age is premature. Companies seem to be as willing as ever to behave unethically, where ever they can get away with it, and to comply as slowly and reluctantly as possible where ever they cannot.

  3. Chris MacDonald on

    Jilly:

    When were things better?

    Chris.

  4. crespin79 on

    Nicely written, but rather optimistic. I think we are moving towards the golden age, but I do not believe that we are there yet. That being said, “hope springs eternal…”

    Ethics is conscience-based, knowledge-based and attitude-based, and not suited to some individuals, who, by their very nature, have consistently demonstrated selfishness and greed. Can any ethics training program (or law) prevent Bernie Madoff, Vincent Lacroix, Conrad Black, etc. from being themselves ?

    No, but a well-designed & implemented program (and related laws) can
    (a) help good people to do the right thing consistently
    (b) make it more difficult for wrong-doers to succeed &
    (c) raise people’s ethical IQS.

    “The fact that more corporate scandals are reported isn’t really evidence that more corporate scandals are happening.” This is quite true. What is equally true, is that when fewer scandals are reported e.g., in the near future, it won’t necessarily mean that fewer scandals are happening―it could mean that fewer culprits are being caught, because unethical people “are now more capable of covering their tracks,” ceteris paribus.

    Maxwell Pinto, Business Author
    http://www.strategicbookpublishing.com/Management-TidbitsForTheNewMillenium.html

  5. Dan on

    Chris,

    I’m inclined to agree with you, but I think a lot depends on what exactly we’re measuring when we talk about “corporate ethics”, and on what the evidence actually shows.

    So, for example, if how corporations treat their employees is an element of corporate ethics, then there are different things to measure and the evidence seems mixed (on a first rough cut): Hiring practices are much more inclusive now than at any previous point, but perhaps we’ve receded from earlier gains in terms of working hours and nature/security of employment contracts. To be sure, these things were worse during the Lochner era, but perhaps not as good as what had been achieved by the 1960s but lost during the 1980s and 1990s.

    In any case, I think you have a sound hypothesis which could withstand initial arm chair scrutiny. But you need to specifiy exactly what constitutes the measures of “corporate ethics” and what the evidence reveals.

    That said, you added a question mark to your blog title, so perhaps you’ve covered yourself.

    Dan

  6. Mark Edwards on

    Let’s assume that contemporary businesses are actually more ethical now than ever before. Let’s say that there is more awareness about issues, a more sophisticated moral ethos that’s prevalent in workplaces. There are good arguments for this I agree. But still, even if this is the case, this does not necessarily mean that, as a whole, businesses will produce better ethical outcomes for the global society. Even if ethical considerations have risen considerably over the decades, the power of businesses to produce totally unintended consequences has increased many times over. Organisations can be full of very nice people acting ethically and being mindful of their responsibilities but the actions of those organisations can still result in horrendous environmental and social problems. Climate change is a case in point.

    I would argue that our ethical responsibilities are commensurate with the power that we possess. The greater the power the greater the ethical responsibility. So to judge how we are doing it is not enough to simply assess the level of ethical activity. We also need to see it within the context of the power we have to change the lives and environments of others. On this score I think we are not doing so well.

  7. Megan Schmit on

    I had the opportunity to work for a few months in Europe, and it opened my eyes to how far we are regarding the values that are upheld in the workplace.

    In a way, I think society will always be chasing a more perfect standard of morality. For me, your article makes me pause for a moment, and appreciate progress that we’ve accomplished.

    I do find it interesting, that many react with environmental appeals. I just find it difficult to understand why anyone feels that emphasis should be placed on the environment over the individual. If we can’t treat another human being in an “ethical” manner, how can we expect positive change regarding corporate environmental ethics.

    There isn’t a quick solution, and discrimination alone is a deeply ingrained value that will never (only my personal opinion here) disappear. But what we don’t do, as a society, is applaud the progress. Who doesn’t get motivated when your efforts are applauded? As a female, I’m proud of the American values that protect my rights and allow me to dream of achieving whatever I dream. That’s a great thing that children tomorrow will dream of things that children today see as out of reach.

    This is the only time in history that I am or would ever be taken seriously in a conference room. It’s the only time in the history of higher education that I wouldn’t be chastised for challenging a male colleague in lecture, let alone admitted with the belief I could succeed.

    I’m an asian-american female, but I didn’t really think about either of the two minority aspects until a racial discrimination course in college, at least not in the workplace. We should always be trying to better our processes, communications, values, and standards…but I’m lucky I get to chase dreams that I wouldn’t have even considered just a couple decades ago.

  8. Corinne on

    Chris,

    I just stumbled upon your site by accident as I was doing research for my latest book. While it’s about social skills in business, it covers the issue of business ethics and integrity, which are on the spectrum of social skills, character and values — the nature of my business and book.

    I think I’m going to be a frequent visitor as I think you have much to offer in your entries.

    I’m a firm believer that we have to return to a more decent and fair way of doing business, where it’s more about “What’s in it for US?” than it is “What’s in it for ME.” Glad to find a group of like-minded individuals.

    – Corinne Gregory
    http://www.corinnegregory.com

  9. Chris MacDonald on

    Corinne:

    Thanks for your comment.

    But I disagree with you about the need for a “return” to a more decent and fair way of doing business. The notion of a “return” implies that there was some golden era in the past to which we should look as an example. And I think that’s false. At least, I can’t think of any time in history when business was generally more ethical. That’s the whole point of the blog entry above.

    Chris.

  10. […] also quoted, making a point I’ve made before, namely that business is more ethical today than it has ever been in the […]

  11. […] things may not be all that bad. I’ve even argued that we are currently enjoying a sort of golden age of business ethics. Business today is, in may ways, more accountable and better behaved than ever before in […]


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