Do I operate from a clear code of ethics?

by Sam on June 10, 2009

Analysis: In 2004 in my MBA course “Meeting the Challenges of Corporate Leadership” I assigned students the following question.

Right after Lee Harvey Oswald shot President Kennedy and a Dallas police officer he said, “I have done nothing to be ashamed of.” What does this incident, as well as our experience with the Enron executives and other corporate evildoers suggest about the power of using the Wall Street Journal rule to determine the ethics of a particular business behavior?

The so-called “Wall Street Journal Rule” has been described this way: “I ask myself, ‘Is the behavior I’m contemplating something I would want my family and friends reading about on the front page of the Journal?’ If I have any hesitancy at all, I revisit what I am doing or thinking. If it cannot stand the scrutiny of public exposure, then I need to back off.’” The WSJ Rule is offered by progressive thinkers who cannot abide “absolutists” of earlier days who might look to the Code of Hammurabi, the Ten Commandments, or their faith for a core of moral truth.

Check these excerpts from student answers to the question.

A.   If a person’s wiring and moral fiber are in the wrong place, they may still perform deeds that would end up in the WSJ. So, the Rule only works if you have good morals to begin with.

B.   Unfortunately, the business community and our nation as a whole seem to be moving away from religion and the moral base it provides. Without a strong moral foundation that dictates acceptable and unacceptable behaviors, ethical standards will be based solely on the existing situation and individual attitudes. This trend when coupled with a focus on short-term results created a dangerous situation that came to light during the Enron, WorldCom, and Adelphia scandals. We can only hope that these scandals will result in a return to moral behavior and a stronger corporate emphasis on ethics.

C.   The WSJ rule is supposed to incent people to follow ethical standards of business behavior, but it appears that not everyone has the same ethical standards. It did not work with Oswald and never appeared to hinder our current corporate evildoers.

D.   For my own part, I believe that the best reason for not doing something wrong is that it is wrong.

E.   Ethical standards are ethical standards…If it takes the Wall Street Journal rule for you to discover your ethical code, you are in trouble.

F.   Different people are shamed by different things. Because of this difference, using the WSJ won’t prevent bad behavior.

G.   The Wall Street Journal rule is not enough to determine ethical behavior…A higher standard of ethics is necessary.

Answer: These responses gave me cause for hope in the young people (average age, early 30′s) who were leaving my class to enter or re-enter the world of work. I was so encouraged that we collaborated on the draft of an “absolutist” code of business ethics. It looked like this.

I am Compromised When…

1.   I knowingly cause or allow people to lose dignity, suffer emotional harm, or incur physical injury, except in cases of self-defense.

2.   I knowingly cause or allow people to make choices critical to their well being based on untruthful, misleading, or otherwise flawed information.

3.   I encourage or require others to demonstrate qualitative standards of behavior that I have no intention of demonstrating myself or that, even with good intentions, I fail to live up to.

4.   I make a promise that I have no intention of keeping or that I fail to make every effort to keep.

5.   I violate a foundational and universally accepted business principle or practice.

6.   I betray a trust or violate a confidence.

7.   I tell a lie or in any way misrepresent a situation, event, or outcome.

8.   I refuse to accept responsibility for the results of my actions.

9.   I knowingly and intentionally violate any law of the land.

If I accept the sovereignty of the God of Abraham, these two are added:

10. I fall below any behavioral standard based on the core of moral truth established by God. (Augments and can override #1-8.)

11. I knowingly and intentionally violate any law of the land that is just according to the core of moral truth established by God. (Can override #9.)

If I adhere to a faith or a core of moral truth founded somewhere other than on the teachings of the God of Abraham, this is added:

12. I fall below any behavioral standard based on the core of moral truth stemming from my beliefs. (Augments #1-8.)

I’d appreciate your feedback on our work. What would you add, re-word, or delete? More importantly, how closely do you live by whatever final document you would hold up to yourself and to others?

Aphorism: In matters of style, swim with the current; in matters of principle, stand like a rock. ~Thomas Jefferson

Approaching: Is there a “coming attraction” on this list that you can’t wait for? Shoot me an email for a sneak preview.

6/17: Why do people fight?
6/24: How can I keep fights from breaking out?
7/1: What is the best way to fight?
7/8: When (and how) should I step in to break up a fight?
7/15: What are the most inspiring thoughts about leadership?
7/22: How can I do a better job of delivering criticism?
7/29: Who, me—a praise miser?
8/5: How can I use praise more effectively to motivate others?

Action (yours)

Do you have an Ask for Sam about leadership, team building or communications? Email that question to him at He will respond to you either by email or telephone. Please include your telephone number with your Ask.

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