Business Ethics: Blackjack or Bust?

By Axline, Larry L. | Management Review, October 1990 | Go to article overview

Business Ethics: Blackjack or Bust?


Axline, Larry L., Management Review


Business Ethics: Blackjack or Bust?

As founder and CEO of my own company, as a principal in one of the largest U.S. professional service firms, and as an advisor to top management in commercial and private sectors, I have observed wide swings over the years in the attention to business ethics. Currently, there is considerable focus on ethics code development and organizationwide training. It is generally agreed that adults cannot, and possibly should not, be "taught" ethics. Thus, the direction of the past five years has been toward ethics awareness programs. My experience, and research conducted with my colleague Dr. Mark Pastin, suggests that there are as many risks associated with business ethics programs as there are payoffs. The following are 21 points of payoff and peril in business ethics.

1. Business ethics involves questioning diligence and strategy--not just problem solving. The organization must tolerate and encourage questions--then be prepared to act.

2. Stakeholder perspectives and organizational ground rules must be continually evaluated. A stakeholder is any person, organization or entity which has an interest in a decision you are making or an action you are taking. Ground rules are the written and unwritten practices by which we conduct our business and our lives.

3. When people feel they have been treated unfairly, they will "get even." Some wage organizational warfare, some quit and stay on the job, and some slow down. Everyone has power--to forget or to foot-drag.

4. The majority of "ethics problems" are really people relationship problems. A number-one issue is fairness/favoritism with respect to promotion and performance appraisal. Too often, promotions are seen as "management by cronyism." Employees expect managers to hold non-performers accountable.

5. Self-esteem is critical. A blow to self-worth can be damaging to the person and the organization. When personal worth is threatened or reduced, the battlelines are drawn and ethics programs begin to crumble.

6. Never promise or threaten anything you are unable or unwilling to deliver. Organizations that are honest and follow through on their promises are typically high-ethics and high-performance entities.

7. Know your purpose and the organization's purpose. This sounds fundamental, but the individual's purpose must be operative within the context of the organization (sometimes vice-versa).

8. Ask, "Who is responsible here?", i.e., the person or the organization? Ultimately, we are all responsible for ethical decisions.

9. Avoid the trap of "I would be more ethical if the organization would let me"--unless the organization is a low-ethics company. If it is, and you can't handle it, get out.

10. …

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