As published in the Jan. 11, 2007, issue of the Journal of Business.
What Have We Wrought? …Ethics in a Globalized World
by Kyle Usrey
It used to be easy to separate one's personal and professional lives. Celebrities and politicians have always found that challenging, but the bar is rising for the rest of us, too. No matter where one goes in this world, one's transgressions follow. As Thomas Friedman has said, we now have 6.2 billion neighbors as a result of globalization, and they can all discover our sins with the click of a mouse.
As we bemoan this lack of privacy, the uber-scrutiny might be helpful in debating what we can reasonably expect from our colleagues, leaders and managers. Exhibit A is Boeing Co.'s code of ethics, which includes this curious phrase: "Employees will not engage in conduct or activity that may raise questions as to the company’s honesty, impartiality, reputation, or otherwise cause embarrassment to the company."
The sentence apparently was what enabled Boeing's board to fire CEO Harry Stonecipher in 2005 for his sexual indiscretions with a subordinate. Yet, the prospect of being heavily sanctioned merely for embarrassing the company strikes a chord of consonance and a feeling of terror. Supporters of this "embarrassment clause" note that scandals can cost employees their jobs and investors their life savings, while critics point out the inherent ambiguity of what constitutes sanctionable shame. How can anyone conform his or her behavior to such a vague standard? Yet, that is fast becoming the expectation around the world.
Witness China's current investigation of 17,000 Communist Party functionaries for abusing their positions for personal gain. Observers in Thailand say the downfall of former Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra in a bloodless coup was due largely to his blatant cronyism.
More and more local governments and faith-based institutions in the U.S. are drafting codes of conduct to cover board directors and even contractors, as well as employees, with catch-all clauses to proscribe behaviors that could be termed "moral turpitude." Consider Spokane’s reaction after Mayor Jim West was voted out of office for offering public appointments and other benefits in exchange for sexual favors. A recall election was the only way to remove him in the absence of an impeachment provision in the city code until a new ethics provision, which included a "moral turpitude" clause, was adopted. "Moral turpitude," like "embarrassment," can cover myriad behaviors.
This new and global ethics proviso boils down to avoiding actions that will substantially damage the reputation of the company or, in the case of government officials, that will cause a loss of trust in the eyes of the public. Perhaps what we will conclude from holding our public and corporate officials to this higher standard is that none of us is pure, but transparency and accountability are the best cleansers.
Those in positions of power and influence, whose behaviors can have such a profound impact on their stakeholders, must now constantly ask themselves: At what point am I, my family, or friends benefiting as a direct result of the influence I have by virtue of my position of power? To what extent might my actions appear improper and harm the public's faith in the entity I represent? Can any of my private actions be construed as hypocritical when compared with my public life?
Socrates reportedly said, "An unexamined life is not worth living." Socrates was calling us to examine our own lives more than our neighbors'. Perhaps such examination will give us the courage to impose sanctions when they are necessary, the compassion to extend grace when it is appropriate, and the wisdom to know when each is called for.
Kyle Usrey is dean of the School of Global Commerce & Management at Whitworth University and a member of the Washington State Ethics Board.
Note: The opinions expressed in works written by Whitworth faculty and staff do not necessarily represent the views of Whitworth University or members of its community. They are, however, symbolic of Whitworth’s commitment as a Christian college to the free exchange of ideas.