- Define business ethics and explain what it means to act ethically in business.
- Explain how you can recognize an ethical organization.
The WorldCom situation is not an isolated incident. The boom years of the 1990s were followed by revelations of massive corporate corruption, including criminal schemes at companies such as Enron, Adelphia, and Tyco. In fall 2001, executives at Enron, an energy supplier, admitted to accounting practices concocted to overstate the company’s income over a period of four years. In the wake of the company’s collapse, stock prices plummeted from $90 to $1 a share, inflicting massive financial losses on the investment community. Thousands of employees lost not only their jobs but their retirement funds, as well (Kadlec, 2002). Before the Enron story was off the front pages, officials at Adelphia, the nation’s sixth-largest cable company, disclosed that founder and CEO John Rigas had treated the publicly owned firm as a personal piggy bank, siphoning off billions of dollars to support his family’s extravagant lifestyle and bankrupting the company in the process (Lieberman, 2004). Likewise, CEO Dennis Koslowzki of conglomerate Tyco International was apparently confused about what was his and what belonged to the company. Besides treating himself to a $30 million estate in Florida and a $7 million Park Avenue apartment, Koslowzki indulged in a taste for expensive office accessories—such as a $15,000 umbrella stand, a $17,000 traveling toilette box, and a $2,200 wastebasket—that eventually drained $600 million from company coffers1.
As crooked as these CEOs were, Bernie Madoff, founder of Bernard L. Madoff Investment Securities and former chairman of the NASDAQ stock exchange, makes them seem like dime-store shoplifters2. Madoff is alleged to have run a giant Ponzi scheme (Langan, 2008) that cheated investors of up to $65 billion. His wrongdoings won him a spot at the top of Time Magazine’s Top 10 Crooked CEOs. According to the SEC charges, Madoff convinced investors to give him large sums of money. In return, he gave them an impressive 8 percent to 12 percent return a year. But Madoff never really invested their money. Instead, he kept it for himself. He got funds to pay the first investors their return (or their money back if they asked for it) by bringing in new investors. Everything was going smoothly until the fall of 2008, when the stock market plummeted and many of his investors asked for their money back. As he no longer had their money, the game was over and he had to admit that the whole thing was just one big lie. Thousands of investors, including many of his wealthy friends, not-so-rich retirees who trusted him with their life savings, and charitable foundations, were financially ruined. All those harmed by Madoff either directly or indirectly were pleased when he was sentenced to jail for one-hundred and fifty years.
Are these cases merely aberrations? A Time/CNN poll conducted in the midst of all these revelations found that 72 percent of those surveyed don’t think so. They believe that breach of investor and employee trust represents an ongoing, long-standing pattern of deceptive behavior by officials at a large number of companies (Gibbs, et. al., 2002). If they’re right, then a lot of questions need to be answered. Why do such incidents happen (and with such apparent regularity)? Who are the usual suspects? How long until the next corporate bankruptcy record is set? What action can be taken—by individuals, organizations, and the government—to discourage such behavior?
The Idea of Business Ethics
It’s in the best interest of a company to operate ethically. Trustworthy companies are better at attracting and keeping customers, talented employees, and capital. Those tainted by questionable ethics suffer from dwindling customer bases, employee turnover, and investor mistrust.
Let’s begin this section by addressing one of the questions that we posed previously: What can individuals, organizations, and government agencies do to foster an environment of ethical and socially responsible behavior in business? First, of course, we need to define two terms: business ethics and social responsibility. They’re often used interchangeably, but they don’t mean the same thing.
What Is Ethics?
You probably already know what it means to be ethical: to know right from wrong and to know when you’re practicing one instead of the other. At the risk of oversimplifying, then, we can say that business ethics is the application of ethical behavior in a business context. Acting ethically in business means more than simply obeying applicable laws and regulations: It also means being honest, doing no harm to others, competing fairly, and declining to put your own interests above those of your company, its owners, and its workers. If you’re in business you obviously need a strong sense of what’s right and what’s wrong (not always an easy task). You need the personal conviction to do what’s right, even if it means doing something that’s difficult or personally disadvantageous.