In the wake of the rash of corporate misdeeds for which Enron is the metaphor, it is not surprising that there has been a proliferation of op/eds, seminars, and beefed-up business school courses on business ethics. The best article I have seen so far is “Oxymoron 101”, by Dan Seligman in Forbes magazine (it also carries the most appropriate title!). Seligman is understandably dubious of the business schools’ ability to offer anything meaningful about ethical lapses in business. At the risk of appearing sanctimonious, I’ve never had nor felt the need for a course on business ethics, nor in my days as a CEO would I have considered requiring one for my colleagues. It’s about character and the recognition of right and wrong behavior. If you need to take a course to recognize a conflict of interest, you shouldn’t be running a business or any other institution. I’m not terminally naïve; I know that there are ethical and moral “dilemmas”, but there is no magic about any of this.
Recent surveys reveal that lying to supervisors is rampant and that top management credibility with subordinates is seriously damaged throughout the business community. It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that much of this condition results from decades of instruction in and examples of situational ethics, moral relativity, and non-judgmentalism. And we are reaping what we have sowed with the current “no confidence” attitude toward corporate governance on the part of the investing and the general public. More ethics courses and more laws and regulations will never be the answer. What we need is more of what is implied by the title of a famous early-1990’s report on the subject—“obedience to the unenforceable”—the key to ethics in business and in life.