Business Book of the Week: World of Ethics Works on Theory of Relativity

Article excerpt

Ethics at work

By Bob Kelley

(Gower, pounds 39.50)

THE INDUSTRY in books on business ethics is explained, at least in part, by the confusion many of us feel when confronted by instances of poor business behaviour. I suspect there is a deep desire in most of us to take people as we find them. On occasion, this can prove a flawed approach and we often leave ourselves open to making the wrong judgements.

In this era of growing globalisation, ethical dilemmas are thrown up in all sorts of situations. For instance, when setting up offices in developing companies, is it ethical to pay under the table for a quick phone connection? Should a company operating in a developing country stand back as its joint venture partner condones the demands of corrupt government officials? This book shows that it is unwise to take too much at face value. For a start, it is unwise to contrast European and US approaches to ethics at work without describing the background to these different approaches in more detail, because it is all too easy for readers to get the impression this country stands head and shoulders above others in business ethics.

On the contrary. The Dutch have lessons for anyone with their concept of poldermodel - that all need to be involved if an enterprise is to be successful, akin to the way polder, or land, is reclaimed from the sea, only with a sense of joint and shared responsibility.

Ethics at Work has several strengths, and one is in its descriptions of ethics in the public and professional sectors, a major contribution to the debate on ethics in the UK. Few have tackled this area with such rigor and understanding. And it is good to see the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales has issued a Guide to Professional Ethics, although perhaps it is less clear why, despite this, the larger firms are frequently fined. The author is also right to draw attention to the extraordinary "twin stream" approach to business ethics by the Institute of Directors. Taking a Friedmanite position on economics while arguing the advantages of a stakeholder model on ethics, which is little like trying to be all things to all men.

The dilemmas noted at the beginning of the book are first-rate, and are worth the purchase price alone. The author describes someone setting up a joint venture in a developing country only to find that the area is being attacked by "terrorists". This leads to a realisation that his company may be supporting a regime oppressing the majority of the population, and causing environmental damage through deforestation to boot.

The book is also big on the law at work, which is again valuable. A number of UK companies remain content to rely on legal and regulatory frameworks for their ethical base, but the public is often sufficiently far ahead of lawmakers when moral questions arise for this to be a poor strategy. …