It's amazing what a difference a few years can make! During the boom years of the 1980s and, most especially, the 1990s, it was rare to find business people or mainstream investors who were willing to devote more than token attention -- if any at all -- to the notion of corporate ethics. Labor union activists, socially responsible investors and "tree-hugging" environmentalists might agitate for a world in which fairer treatment could predominate (although their definitions of "fairer" might vary). But for most corporate participants and observers, certain truths were self-evident: as CEO's like Andrew Grove (then of Intel) might put it, the business world was governed by a set of Darwinian rules in which "only the paranoid" could "survive." If lean-and-mean management strategies led to profits and higher stock prices then, by definition, they were "good." Other role models and alternative codes of conduct were few and far between for those entrepreneurs who might seek a different path to corporate growth and personal success.
For some time now, Jeffrey Seglin, a former editor at Inc., has distinguished himself as the leading voice -- if sometimes a lonely voice -- in the national debate on business ethics. In his must-read monthly, business-ethics column for The New York Times, he consistently asks tough questions: the kind that often surface in the work world when stakes are high, tempers are heated, time is limited, and there aren't any easy answers.
Seglin's recently published book, The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business (Spiro Press, $17.95) doesn't provide these answers, but it accomplishes something much more important. In a quick 156 pages, the book teaches people how to become critical thinkers on matters relating to corporate ethics. Many times, as the author makes clear, we brush ethical issues under the table and simply don't accord them any weight when we're making significant decisions in the workplace. Seglin shows us how to do just that, by turning the spotlight on a series of fascinating real-world anecdotes on timely matters such as loyalty and layoffs, whistle-blowing, job references, and much more. The book focuses on six key areas: ethics policies and "life in the corporation," hiring, bosses (good and bad), privacy, practices that the author terms "lying, cheating and stealing," and, what should be an essential matter for any entrepreneur, "leading by example."
One good example of Seglin's ability to look beyond the obvious issues -- and help his readers do the same -- is his discussion of the brouhaha that followed the 2000 recall of 6.5 million Firestone tires on Ford Explorers, after some notorious incidents of tire blowouts and vehicle rollovers. A seemingly unending stream of finger pointing between Ford and Firestone hurt both companies when it came to the public's confidence in their products and credibility. It was clear, even at the time, that this wasn't the way to handle a product-liability crisis. Seglin sorts through the pros and cons of the corporate blame game, but then moves on to the larger issue, concluding: "The real ethical lesson here is not that blaming is bad or good. Instead, the lesson is found in what happens when companies fail to work together to solve a problem after the marriage of their products." How true. No one -- and that includes a company's customers, investors, managers and employees -- comes away unscathed from an incident like this one, when companies are so busy running for cover that they ignore ethical priorities.
The truly astonishing scandals at Enron, Arthur Andersen, Tyco, ImClone, and elsewhere have accomplished something very important as they have reminded all of us -- owners and managers, employees, and investors -- of the overriding importance of business ethics (defined most accurately, I believe, as the willingness to grapple with difficult questions of conduct while considering bottom lines that involve more than finance alone). Any owner could broaden his or her thinking on this subject by spending a couple of hours with Seglin's book. And I suspect that there'd be an equally significant payoff from circulating this book among employees, as well.