September 21, 2003
THE RIGHT THING
The Golden Rule in a Gray Area Called Business
In his latest book, "There's No Such Thing as Business Ethics: There's Only One Rule for Making Decisions" (Warner Books), John C. Maxwell says the beleaguered business world needs to adhere more to the rule's single guiding force. "It's a very simple rule," said Mr. Maxwell, a motivational speaker and prolific author. "You throw it out on the table, and anybody would say, 'Yes, I would like to be treated as I would want to treat other people and vice versa.' ''
The book contains many anecdotes about executives who have acted with others in mind (taking pay cuts rather than laying people off; refusing to frequent strip joints on business trips) and reaped benefits in return.
But while it might be nice to have one simple ethical solution to all business woes, it's not quite that simple.
"Mr. Maxwell sounds like one of my students; they want the one rule they can always apply and know that they can feel good about," said Laura P. Hartman, a professor of business ethics at DePaul University in Chicago. "It presumes that we all live by the same universal standards."
Distinguishing what is good and evil about how we treat others is not clear cut, either. "All the interesting and important issues in ethics are in figuring out what the golden rule means in specific instances," said Jon P. Gunnemann, a professor of social ethics at Emory University in Atlanta. "Does 'do unto others' mean no factory closings in older communities? Abandoning all short-term thinking at the management level? Treating employees as having the same entitlements as shareholders, even though the law privileges the latter?' "
"In brief," Professor Gunnemann said, the suggestion that behaving ethically boils down to following the golden rule is "pretty shallow stuff."
But Mr. Maxwell would have us believe that if the executives embroiled in the recent spate of company scandals had only read his slim volume and followed his advice, corporate America might not have found itself in such throes. Among his suggestions is to recognize and avoid the "five factors that can tarnish'' the golden rule: pressure, pleasure, power, pride and skewed priorities.
Actually, these executives would have had to read the book well before they went astray. "You have to make the decision to be ethical on the front end before the pressure comes," Mr. Maxwell said in a recent interview. Otherwise, you're "going to cave," he added.
Mr. Maxwell's devotion to the golden rule seems to stem from his 25 years as a church pastor. An ordained Wesleyan minister, he left the pulpit in 1995 so he could run full-time a consulting firm that he started as a sideline in 1985. The company, Injoy, was originally intended to help other ministers with fund-raising projects and has since expanded to offer leadership consulting services to businesses.
Mr. Maxwell is careful not to infuse his book with Christian references, in order to appeal to a broader audience. "The message is a very true message and a very helpful message and why should it be limited to just one group of people?'' he said in the interview. The only New Testament mention in the book is to the reference of the golden rule in Matthew 7:12, but Mr. Maxwell also lists references to similar rules from Islam, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Confucianism and Bahai.
While he does have a positive message, it ultimately falls prey to the weaknesses of many motivational books that garner wide audiences by proffering simple solutions to complex problems. For "doing unto others" to have a prayer of working in businesses, the corporate culture and mechanisms must be in place to clearly define and offer incentives for such behavior. Accomplishing that will take more than simply suggesting that people be nice to one another. Business ethics are far more complex than Mr. Maxwell lets on.
Jeffrey L. Seglin teaches at Emerson College in Boston and is the author of ``The Right Thing: Conscience, Profit and Personal Responsibility in Today's Business'' (Spiro Press). His column appears the third Sunday of each month. E-mail: email@example.com.
©Copyright 2003, The New York Times (NY, USA)
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