Magazine article Management Today

Good Behaviour

Magazine article Management Today

Good Behaviour

Article excerpt

BACK SEAT GOOD BEHAVIOUR 'Of course, the point of business ethics is to prevent good men from going bad.' The comment was made to me in Washington recently by the director of a business ethics centre there, and I found it intriguing. I was inclined to take a rather more positive approach to the subject of business ethics. And other centres I had been visiting had taken a more academic view of what has become a fashionable field of study in the US. But here in the nation's capital, where the pressure on people to deliver is at its most intense, ethics in business and government circles -- or the lack of it -- makes daily headlines. Perhaps I was being presented with the bottom line in business ethics: its point is to help good people resist pressure. It sounded like a rewrite of Malvolio's views on greatness: 'Some men are born bad, some achieve badness, and some have badness thrust upon them.'

People's attitudes to the moral dimension of business can vary considerably. In the highly popular film Wall Street, Gordon Gekko (he of the credo that 'greed is good") is described as having had an ethical bypass at birth. Some people find the subject exasperating: 'Good God, it's difficult enough without bringing ethics into it!' And to others again ethics in business may be a matter of complete indifference, reminding one of George Bernard Shaw's dictum that the essence of inhumanity is not hatred of other people, but indifference to them.

Many business people, however, may feel they are in the position of Moliere's M. Jourdain, who realised he had been speaking in prose all his life. Millions of business people have been behaving morally in their business dealings for many years, long before all this fuss started, as if business ethics was something new.

Yet there are certain features of modern business which have brought the subject of business ethics into prominence today, and they all come down to a vast increase in power and a corresponding increase in public sensitivity. Modern business ethics was born of the rise of corporations and the distinction between ownership and management, coupled with a series of events in the 1960s and '70s in the US. Those were the decades of massive bribery disclosures in the aftermath of Watergate, of the black civil rights and women's movements demanding the eradication of discrimination and stereo-typing of the powerful public safety and environmental lobbies, and of a drawning concern for the plight of the poor and the undeveloped peoples of the Third World. …

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