The Common Good
January-February 2000

The Brave New World of Business Ethics

by Laura L. Nash | January-February 2000

As the old moral infrastructure crumbles, will faith take its place?

Gabriel’s horn signaling the millennium is no longer a single trumpet blast, but thousands of networked pundits worrying about business, society, and the deeper meaning of current changes in economic life. One of the most pressing of these soul-searches concentrates on the state of business ethics. The business person who seeks to do right faces a brave new cyberworld where none of the familiar moral reinforcements are stable. So many products with no previous history, newly minted mergers of businesses with no common culture, and no fixed geographic locality to answer to as neighbor.

Columnist James Burke suggests in his bit of punditry for Forbes ASAP that there are only two things we can count on in the future: First, a "great convergence" of information technology generating massive fragmentation of knowledge that will lead to "an innovative surge unlike any that went before." And second, a society totally unprepared for the effects of these changes.

Nowhere can we expect more rapid change than at business institutions. How prepared are business leaders to respond from a sufficiently humane and enlightened standpoint? Will Christianity make a difference in their preparation and ethical expertise?

The future is already here: Supermarkets are taking up banking; corporate mailrooms are turning into retail outlets as employees order goods through their

office computers; whole office complexes are being abandoned in favor of teleconferencing among the "road warriors"; computer-to-computer transactions are conducted entirely without benefit of human "interference"—until Mrs. McGillicuddy discovers herself the proud recipient of 4,000 tons of soybeans on her doorstep due to an erroneous keystroke during her daily e-trades!

What do obligation and responsibility mean in a world where traditional moral touchstones are undone by business innovation? One thing is certain: The current moral infrastructure is not secure enough to support these changes. Property rights, interpersonal trust, regulatory oversight, institutional loyalty, and long-standing reputation are all under spontaneous reconstruction. What role will Christian faith—by definition based on timeless truths—play in this new world that seems to leapfrog over history with startling speed? The short answer: It depends.

AS FAMILIAR ETHICAL reinforcements crumble and well-intentioned ethics programs lag behind new business conditions, faith will arguably take a more central role as moral navigator to the concerned. Already there is growing interest in spirituality (including the ethical assumptions that go along with spiritual revival) as a resource to business rather than a sidebar. But the distinctive aspects of Christianity in its many forms will only influence business to the degree that the faith can be seen to engage the new questions of business and society in practical, diverse ways.

There is an ironic dimness to our information pool on religion and business, despite the obvious history of Protestant dominion over earlier economic eras. Long relegated to one’s private thoughts or seen as standing over and against business, Christianity has only recently come out of the closet as a force to be taken seriously and deliberately inside the workplace.

First came the conservative Christians seeking to resurrect the sacred canopy in the marketplace. Many are in smaller companies whose founder/CEOs breached the secular beachhead through the power of personal ownership. Some have aggressively dedicated their businesses to Jesus as a public statement of conviction. They advertise this commitment openly in corporate communications and seek to construct a corporate culture that replicates the language of the Bible. Some represent terrible business practices, playing on peoples’ religious faith to push poor products and questionable financial schemes.

Many, however, are excellent companies, like ServiceMaster or the R.W. Beckett Corporation. Holding diverse political views and dedicating their businesses to the glory of God, they seek to establish a place for explicitly Christian values within mainstream business without silencing other forms of religious or agnostic faith. As business globalizes, these tensions are intensifying. One can only applaud those leaders who are keenly sensitive to the religious diversity within their own companies, who wrestle with the twin desire to ensure freedom of expression and make a clear statement about their own commitments.

These evangelicals are somewhat of a surprise to the larger business culture, which tends to associate marketplace references to Jesus with hucksterism. On the contrary, ServiceMaster has been in Fortune’s top-10 service companies for a number of years, occupying the top slot in 1999. R.W. Beckett’s quality and reliability have been legendary, as has its progressive parental-leave policies. Others lead in community outreach. For example Paul Kuck, head of Regal Marine, has been extremely active in Chuck Colson’s Prison Fellowship program, which has increasingly concentrated on job skill preparation (including educational and emotional skills) as part of its mission.

They are not alone. There are many concrete examples of evangelical CEOs bringing their faith into practice. The lesson is not that Christian belief leads to a uniform stand on employee policies or corporate citizenship. Rather, faith sustains a tension of values around competition and service that stands in alignment with creative, dignifying forces rather than destructive exploitation.

THE SECOND MAJOR wave of religious resuscitation in business today is comprised of the many people professing many forms of Christian faith who feel that their religion should be personally relevant to their own decisions, the relationships they form, and the institutional structures they promote through business activity. They do not want to wear religion on their sleeve, nor are they satisfied with a faith that only issues political or economic directives.

In this search for religious relevance and deeper spirituality, many business people are going it alone, convinced their churches are irrationally hostile to business or ignorant of the roles and responsibilities that go with the territory. They point to preaching that contains impossibly utopian economic views, as well as discriminatory policies and financial irregularities within church administrations and in faith-based organizations—and conclude the church is unqualified to discuss best practices in the business community. Even when these business leaders are close to their pastors on a personal level, their conversations rarely penetrate the realms in which they, as business people, daily operate.

When the church does address business through social action, its activities are typically focused on negative actions: boycotts and demands for withdrawal from business activity. What the business people seek is a perspective that will help them create solutions. As one CEO commented, "I’d like to do things differently, but it is not an option for me to adopt a strategy that suspends all the rules of capitalism and depends on charity to create a financially viable business. Can’t my church offer something to say that doesn’t put me out of business?"

For contrast, the oft-scorned secular spirituality programs have captured the imagination and conscience of millions of business people. These programs position spiritual and ethical conviction as an addition to business thinking, not a negation of it.

THE GREAT INFORMATION convergence raises acute questions as to how Christians and other people of conscience will retain a robust moral perspective in the face of new dimensions of scale and fragmentation. The megamergers in telecommunications are only the beginning of a general reordering that has already thrown compensation systems, organizational loyalties, and even market pricing mechanisms completely out of whack. Managers, who must think globally in order to capitalize on innovative potential, risk losing their sensitivity to the human scale. If you imagine the view of Earth from a spaceship, the problem becomes vivid: no people in the picture. Ethics and faith demand recovery of one’s connectedness to people, whether or not they have a market affiliation.

However, the number one concern from business people on all parts of the Christian spectrum (and from many non-Christians) is not about a particular issue but about how to exercise moral authority as a business leader. What are the proper parameters to religious belief in deciding what’s right for oneself and in representing what’s right for the corporation as a whole?

Some try to prepare themselves through ethical discussions, which tend to concentrate on decision-point problems. "Golden parachute" retirement packages while 5 percent of the workforce is laid off? Locate plants overseas and employ the desperately poor or stay in Middletown, USA? Fast-track employees recruited as the best and the brightest, but seemingly without conscience? They are right to see these as Christian concerns. But how can these "concerns" be brought down to ground zero in the daily decisions and policies of a business manager?

After endless unresolved debates at seminars and retreats for business people, the greatest contribution believers will make to the transformation of business ethics is not captured in a policy question. Rather, faith will make its greatest contribution as a process, an active, intrusive force in the business person’s consciousness.

THIS PROCESS can be engaged in the business realm in many ways. Below are four "first level" avenues that will provoke the dynamics of faith as a process. Deeper questions of relation to God are raised by these avenues, connected like the networks we anticipate in more secular settings.

1. Articulation. There is ample evidence that business leaders need to signal the basic values of their faith more clearly. How many times have you been surprised to hear a devout Christian business leader publicly explain the company’s adherence to the Golden Rule exclusively in terms of its economic good sense? This is a poor leadership strategy for inspiring ethical behavior in the marketplace, which depends on deeper convictions that drive the process of following the Golden Rule. When leaders fail to acknowledge this process, they morally shortchange their own corporate culture.

I am reminded of a recent New Yorker cartoon in which a couple is viewing an ultramodern painting. The woman barks, "If you can’t say anything, would you at least exude something?" The cartoon advice holds good for business people. If you feel religion is better expressed in a secularized form in the workplace, could you at least exude the moral impulse? Clearly we need to work on acceptable strategies and language for capturing the process of faith amidst a diverse group of people.

2. Personalization. Christianity can be a deep source of personalizing the increasingly depersonalized face of business. The convictions that every person is sacred and that human relations define values carry an impetus to deliberately notice the human factor in decisions and act upon it.

3. Valuing Details. In a religiously anchored consciousness, details have special moral meaning. Often the macro representation of a business fails to capture the spirit of a corporate culture, while a small detail—such as how people are greeted—says volumes about the value placed on people. In the current glamorization of global viewpoints, details are particularly devalued. Lawsuits blow up when "the system" fails to notice discriminatory practices that start in little exchanges between employees. Reviving a sensitivity to detail is itself a potentially dignifying process and a service to others.

4. Life creation. The central, hopeful message of Christianity is life—found even in the face of death. When business people see their decisions and responsibilities as a process of life creation, many of the most dead-end ethical debates experience a breakthrough. Problems of scarce resources are met by demanding innovation of oneself, rather than finessing a deal or a political win. A life-creation mindset not only disturbs the believer out of accepting (or exploiting) the status quo, it offers the possibility of joy in one’s working life. It is the heart of another Christian value: stewardship.

By seeing faith as a process, the business person finds new resources for exerting moral leadership in the workplace. Even those who are reluctant to apply specific religious, political, or economic positions in a business setting can tap into the dynamics of faith and share the process with others. Faith cannot produces a seamless web between Christian values and the marketplace, but the process of faith can help strengthen the connections between Christian social ethics and business.

LAURA L. NASH, Ph.D., is a writer, teacher, and consultant in business ethics and director of the Institute for Values-Centered Leadership at Harvard Divinity School. Among her books are Good Intentions Aside (Harvard Business School Press, 1993), Believers in Business (Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1994), and Policies and Persons (McGraw-Hill, 1998). Nash is currently co-authoring a book with William McLennan on the role of the churches in business people’s quest for spirituality.

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