ARTHUR ANDERSEN. ENRON. Halliburton. Kmart. Tyco. WorldCom. Xerox.
Once-respected household names synonymous with business acumen and success, in recent years these companies have grabbed headlines for darker reasons: accusations of deceptive and illegal business practices, insider trading … and just plain greed.
Allegations range from overstating revenue and hiding liabilities to tax evasion and bribing officials. As executives award themselves huge payoffs, employees lose their pensions, their benefits and sometimes their life savings. Scandal is rocking the corporate world.
Some say the marketplace is losing all sense of morality, that "The Market" has become our new icon. Others insist unethical behavior always has been part of the business scene. More than a few within the Episcopal Church believe the church has a role to play, a responsibility to address the scandal, help businesses and business people regain their moral direction.
It is doing just that.
From Trinity Church, Wall Street, to a new business and spirituality network in California’s Silicon Valley, Episcopalians are speaking out and making a difference. A past president of the New York Federal Reserve Bank now serving as chair of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board demands "corrective action." The founder of the nation’s first socially responsible stock fund champions investors’ rights to expect ethical decision making and fair treatment of employees from corporations they support. Executive Council’s Social Responsibility in Investments Committee focuses on excessive executive compensation and will take action at shareholder meetings this year. A training institute started by a former bishop teaches a better model for business leadership.
Public awareness changed
There is nothing new in some people interacting in dishonest and deceitful ways while others are forthright and honest, says George Carter, ethicist and professor of economics at the University of Southern Mississippi.
"If anything, the way business is conducted is more ethical today than in the past," he said. He points to the robber barons of the last century. What has changed is public awareness of people being treated wrongly, he said.
"Because the press is so much more active, there is much more consciousness of those who really breach ethical and responsible conduct," said Carter, a member of Trinity Church in Hattiesburg, Miss. "It’s a case of the majority who are ethical and upright damned by the few who have done ethically wrong things."
Fifty years ago, the church, along with Boy Scouts, Girls Scouts and the "Leave-It-to-Beaver" family structure provided uniform behavioral standards and expectations, Carter said. People carried those standards into the workplace. Carter said he believes ethical decisions today are more often linked to self-interest -- seeking reward and avoiding punishment -- than to internal standards of doing what is right "no matter what," a pattern that reflects the highest level of moral development.
"In business, we need to set up an ethical system with these external structures and reinforcement for the majority of employees, rewards for not doing certain things and punishments for doing them," said Carter. "This is quite different from how we approached employees in the past. You knew it was the right thing because momma and the church told you it was the right thing to do."
Carter isn’t sure the church can teach business ethics because "the references are philosophy and science.
"In Christian ethics, the reference is first Jesus and the Christian tradition, then science, and finally philosophy. … The world is a complex heterogeneous place, and standards have to be secular. Many people aren’t Christian, and using Jesus as a reference is inappropriate."
The Rev. Joan Martin takes a different view. The associate professor of Christian ethics at Episcopal Divinity School in Cambridge, Mass., says Jesus is the norm for our ethics. "We don’t water down to participate in the world so that we give up our uniqueness – our Christian identity," Martin said. "We may approach business and economic ethics but come from having tried to discern what we have to say as Christians to those fields and the persons in those fields."
Martin, a Presbyterian pastor, suggests the church raise questions with the business sector about the moral formation of individuals through discussions with volunteer groups like chambers of commerce and service clubs. "They need to explore together what may be mutual ways of teaching, supporting and empowering businesspeople to engage their moral sensitivities."
Carter suggests offering ethics training in each congregation, starting at a young age, when moral identity starts to develop. The church needs to fulfill this role because "families are declining in their ability to provide the breadth of that understanding people in modern society need," he said.
With this kind of help from the church, those members who go into the business world will have their own moral compass, and they’ll do the right thing because it’s the right thing, Carter said.
"In the workplace, employees look externally to the boss to receive their primary direction of right and wrong, what constitutes moral behavior. If their boss is an Episcopalian," said Carter hopefully, "the impact on the business environment will be enormous."