Achieving Business Success

By Robert L. Bailey

The church school discussion had gradually shifted to ethics. Most of the some 50 members of the class felt that the real culprits in our society are corporate CEOs involved with high-profile ethical lapses and accounting shenanigans. "Why do such unethical humans rise to the top of big corporations?" was the nature of the discussion.

"I'd like to ask a question," I interjected. "Let's say that all of us are employees of the XYZ Corporation. And let's say it's mid-November. And let's say we have five sick days left, and we'll lose them if we don't use them by December 31. How many of you will call in sick?" About half the members of the group raised their hands. Perhaps many of the others likewise would have called in sick but didn't want to admit it in a group setting.

"Wait a minute," I exclaimed. "We're talking about ethics. We're talking about doing the right thing. Yet about half of you are willing to call in sick when you're not sick? Furthermore, this is a church group. If anybody is expected to do the right thing, shouldn't it be us?"

"Yes, but this is different," one said. "I earned those sick days," said another. "This is a stupid rule anyway. They should pay me for my unused sick days," a third chimed in. "I earned it and I'm entitled to it," another insisted.

"Then I suppose," I countered, "if you buy fire insurance on your house and it didn't burn down, you'd burn it down because you're entitled to the benefit?"

Frankly, I didn't convince anybody that calling in sick when you're not sick is wrong. Most in the room could justify their actions – at least in their own minds.

At that point I began to have a better understanding of the ethical problems that surround us-"My situation is different. I earned this. After all I've done for them. This is the least they should do for me."

With effort, the human mind can rationalize nearly any form of behavior, right or wrong – especially when we see so many unethical actions all around us.

Employees take home from their workplaces pads, pencils, paper clips and other office supplies for their personal use; we copy music CDs and tapes; students cheat on tests; we get to work late – and leave early.

More than 70% of American drivers admit regularly driving faster than posted speed limits – and many use radar detectors to avoid detection. More than 60% of golfers admit cheating on their golf scores.

While searching for a new home a few months ago, we worked with a realtor who seemed very competent and professional in every regard – except one. At lunchtime, she drove into a restaurant parking lot, parked in a handicapped spot, opened the glove compartment and brought out a handicapped tag which she placed on the rearview mirror. Now that's real customer service. When we got back to our hotel that evening, we asked ourselves, "Should we be doing business with her? If she'll cheat on that, can we trust her with other matters?"

A few days ago our daughter took a day off work to let a plumber into her home between 8 and 10 a.m. By 10 no plumber. Nor by 11. Nor by noon, when she went back to work. She called for another appointment when she repeated the process. Most of us can relate to her experience.

Some 70% of American workers say their managers or supervisors have taken credit for their ideas.

In my "first life" I was in the property and casualty insurance business where it is estimated that 30 cents of every claim dollar are lost to "soft fraud" – small time cheating by normally honest people.

One third of Americans say it's acceptable to exaggerate insurance claims to make up for the deductible. One of three says it's not wrong for a person to collect workers compensation even though able to return to work.

In some states there are three pending medical malpractice suits for every doctor. Certainly some claims are legitimate. But many of those making claims are searching for "jackpot justice," a significant ethics problem in our country.

Newspaper reporters write stories that are untrue and create quotes that are untrue, and radio and television reporters express their personal bias, all in the interest of advancing a political agenda.

Stock analysts promote a stock because of investment banking ties, not because it's a good investment.

Politicians give unbid contracts to relatives and political cronies. Illegal campaign contributions are nearly routine.

And the list goes on and on, from professional baseball players who use illegal bats to the United Nations. Every element of civilization is involved – religious institutions, philanthropic organizations, labor unions, political parties, business organizations. No segment of society is exempt.

Where is the conscience of the American people? I define conscience as a three-cornered piece of metal, with razor-sharp edges, deep within our hearts. When we do something that we know is unethical or wrong, it turns. And it cuts and hurts. But after it revolves many times, the sharp three-cornered piece of metal becomes dull and round. Unfortunately, by the time some reach roles of prominence, that piece of metal can spin like a ball bearing with no pain or discomfort.

Ethical lapses have become so common that they are accepted as a normal part of life for many people. But this does not mean that ethics cannot be improved in America .

Any organization, including a family unit, can establish a culture of high ethical standards – through leadership. If you want an ethical organization, the leader is ethical. If you want a compassionate organization, the leader is compassionate. If you want an efficient organization, the leader is efficient. Any organization, or any family, reflects the values of the leader. It's that simple.

The values that the leader wishes to emphasize are communicated, over and over again. The leader lives those values, bleeds those values, insists on those values, and recognizes and rewards those values when displayed by others.

Improving ethics in America starts with each of us. Each of us must demonstrate total ethical behavior in all our personal actions and business transactions. Our own actions have the greatest influence on the ethics of those around us.

Robert L. Bailey is the retired CEO of a major company. Visit or contact him at 919-629-6226 or This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..