Ethics in the Workplace

By David W. Gill, Ph.D.

It doesn't take an academic survey or blue ribbon government commission to prove the point that we have an ethics problem in the workplace and business world. Every day, the media run stories of executive misbehavior, improperly-tested products, worker mistreatment, dreadful customer service, employee theft, environmental pollution and so on. Think about the recent subprime lending debacle, the Bernie Madoff scandal, the BP oil spill, and Toyota's cover-up. It often feels like an epidemic from top to bottom of the business world. Most of us have been negatively affected one way or another by these problems; these are not just news stories about others.

Before we get hysterical, though, this perception needs to be balanced a bit. The reality is that most business managers and employees actually do spend their days trying to do the right thing by each other and by their customers. The bad apples and big scandals are the exceptions, not the rule. It is almost certainly the case also that today's media and communications environment has given much wider exposure to problems that in the past went unreported. It is just harder to hide today. Still, we do have serious ethical problems in business and the workplace. One of the ironies of this situation is that over the past 30 years, business ethics, both as a field of study in business school and as a management practice and concern, has received greater and greater emphasis, but with no apparent impact on the way people and organizations actually behave. Over the past 30 years, almost all Fortune 1000 companies have adopted codes of ethics and training programs, and the majority of business schools now have required courses in business ethics and social responsibility. But how effective have all of these been? Maybe we're not doing it the right way.

Damage Control or Mission Control?

One problem with "business ethics as usual" is that it is too often an affair of crisis management and "damage control." The ethics program (or ethics course) focuses almost exclusively on discussion of serious problem cases: the wreck of the Exxon Valdez, the Union Carbide plant explosion in Bhopal, exploited workers in Kathy Lee Gifford's clothing supply chain, Ford's Pinto safety scandal. No doubt we can learn something by analyzing these cases. But let's face it: These are rare and extreme circumstances for most of us. Even more important, we are reacting to situations after they occur. Result? We are being trained to react to rare circumstances in our rearview mirror. We become experts in allocating blame but not much else.Consider sexual harassment training, often the most significant ethics training program in an organization. It takes place primarily out of fear of lawsuits and brand scandals. It focuses on what not to do, what not to say. The tone is threatening. The style is legalistic. Why don't we work positively and constructively on how to build respectful relationships and communication on our team?

A much more effective approach is what I call "mission control" ethics. In this approach, we start by clarifying the purpose of our organization. What is our mission and vision? If our mission is simply and narrowly to "move money from your pockets to mine," we are going to have trouble. The love of money or the mission to tear down our barns and build bigger ones, by itself, isn't going to get it done, ethically speaking. Creating and delivering good and beautiful products and services, fixing the brokenness of our world, healing the hurting and wounded - those are themes that get people out of bed in the morning eager to bring their best, most ethical self to work. In this mission control approach, "ethics" becomes something positive: a description of "how we need to treat one another (and all of our stakeholders) in order to excel and succeed in our mission." This is where Christians can contribute a great deal of insight and truly "salt" the marketplace. Those uplifting mission and vision themes come straight out of the Bible. Our God is Creator and Redeemer. We, and all people, have been made in the image and likeness of a Creator and Redeemer, and we flourish when given a chance to express those aspects of our humanity.
Rules or Character?

A second problem with much of the business and workplace ethics out there is its overemphasis on getting the rules straight, to the neglect of individual character and corporate culture. Much of today's ethics training reacts to crisis cases and ethical dilemmas by appeal to a set of rules and some kind of decision-making formula (borrowed from the secular moral philosophy rooted in the European Enlightenment) for analysis and response.

Christians, of course, can share the best set of moral rules on earth: the Ten Commandments. The Decalogue is a powerful template for ethical guidance that leads to justice, fairness, freedom and care for others. But, by contrast, Christians emphasize that the transformation of character is more fundamental and important than possessing even the best set of rules."The Law, by itself, fails to result in consistently righteous and ethical behavior."This means that we must be born again by God's Spirit as new people with a new nature before the Law can be fulfilled in us (Romans 8:3-4)."In a modest but significant way that echoes this cosmic truth, a person's character is always more important than the rules or principles they espouse."Hence, even in business, it is more crucial to hire for character and work at building healthy, value-embedded organizational cultures than it is to get our code of ethics written and distributed.

As Christians, our agenda is to cooperate with God's work of sanctification in us so that we personally have a strong, ethical, God-honoring character that we take to our workplace. And as Christians, we can promote an emphasis on ethical character and culture in our organizations (over against a narrow focus on ethical rules and codes). One step deeper, we can immerse ourselves in the Beatitudes and other biblical accounts of character so that we can promote the specific virtues and values most likely to empower and reward ethical decisions and actions.
Individualism or Collaboration?

A final weakness of contemporary business and workplace ethics is its individualism. In health care and many other arenas, "autonomy" is king of all ethical values. "Self-determination" and our personal "informed consent" trump everything else. In the ethics training typical of today's corporations, workers are required to go sit alone in front of computer screens to work their way through a series of cases and multiple choice responses.

In this case, the "medium is the message." "It's ethics time, people. Go sit alone in front of your computer!" But that is exactly the wrong message. Ethics is a "team sport" not a "solo sport." The Enlightenment ethics tradition of Kant and others is radically wrong. Dispassionate, rational individuals reasoning their way to and from abstract universal maxims is an approach that leads directly to the postmodern despair and nihilism we often see in today's culture. More and more business and thought leaders have woken up to the "wisdom of teams" and the essential role and power of collaboration. Nowhere is this team and collaboration more important than in ethics. Wisdom comes in the process of listening, conversation, debate and the search for consensus.

Christians know this! They know from the Bible that it is "not good for man to dwell alone." Jesus sent his followers out "two by two," not one by one. The Ten Commandments, Sermon on the Mount and indeed, all biblical ethical guidance, is given to a people, a community, not to an isolated pilgrim. What two or three bind on earth is bound in heaven. The partnership and community context for ethics is a constant, inescapable theme throughout Scripture. In our organizations and workplaces, and in our personal wrestling with difficult issues, we Christians should exemplify and promote this focus on team and collaboration.
Salting and Lighting the Workplace

To be sure, the Bible has a great deal to say about workplace topics like leadership, service, money, property, wealth and poverty, honesty, fairness, integrity, care of creation, diligence and justice. There is a great deal in Scripture about law and justice as well as how to relate to Caesar, how to do business in Babylon and how to treat migrant labor, all very current topics. Jesus had more to say about money, property and wealth than he did about heaven and hell, homosexuality or praise music. We Christians are vastly undereducated on these work and business themes in Scripture, and that prevents us from being the kind of salt of the earth and light of the world Jesus intended. Are we going to wake up and get serious about it?

And as we have seen, it is not just that Christians hold and advocate particular ethical positions on specific business topics. Rather, it is the whole, overall structure, the shape and process of ethics that needs some Christian salt and light. Get the mission and vision straight and in a central place. Hire for character, not just skills and credentials. Build a value-embedded culture and team, don't just write a nice code of ethics. And emphasize team and collaboration in the quest for wise ethics. Don't yield to the individualism of our era.

Working for better business and workplace ethics is not an option in the Christian life. It is a mandate for a 24/7 discipleship. And attached to the call to biblical discipleship and ethics is the promise that we ourselves will be "blessed," our neighbors and colleagues will be loved, salted and illuminated, and God will be glorified.

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