I wrote and submitted the following paper as my final assignment in a course on Business Ethics. The assignment was to write a paper, in the form of a letter to someone who didn’t attend the class, discussing what we got out of the course. For the most part, I detest this sort of assignment because they’re typically fluff and rarely (IMHO) do people really want the raw, honest truth.
Ethics and Stakeholder Management
December 12, 2005
For so long, I have wanted you to know about my life since you died. I wish these words could find their way to your soul, and that you might know me through them now.
Just a year prior I had escaped my corporate employment, on the advice of your widower. I’d become disillusioned by the greed, dishonesty and narcissistic career-building that I had witnessed around me; a practice I had become a part of. It was a situation typical of the American corporate experience: a scenario claiming the best intentions of good people and turning them into ladder-climbing egocentrics, hell-bent on promotion.
My journey to this island could (and should) be traced back to a time prior to my abandonment of the corporate lifestyle.
You know I married young, at the age of 21, to an equally young and similarly naïve woman. I dreamt of stardom and chased it as a musician. She dreamt of being an artist, but then sold it for an opportunity to prove her love for me by working full-time as a payroll clerk. I didn’t see it that way then. It is only recently that I’ve come to that regrettable conclusion.
I failed pretty miserably as a musician, being a bit too right brained for heavy metal, a bit too impressionable for artistic integrity, and, as it were, a bit too eager to make the next move. My musical career culminated in the birth of my first child, whereupon I summarily quit the band, bought a house, and sought a respectable corporate job.
Fifteen years later, life has come around full circle. I find myself studying daily in the shadow of the building where you drew your last breaths ten years ago. That building, where you died, has changed, like I have. Neither looks anything like we did then. Yet inside, the memories of our past remain.
These days, I work adjacent to that memory, studying business and the various disciplines that make it work. And on Tuesday nights, this past semester, I have studied a topic I wish you and I could have discussed: the ethical responsibilities of business to stakeholders.
Given the experiences that led me to this place and time, I often struggled to bite my tongue, as waves of newly minted capitalists conveniently abandoned the teachings of their savior (beatitudes be damned), demonstrating their ability to justify the enrichment of the few on the backs of the poor. Apparently, Nike’s pursuit of profit absolves it of all but the most heinous forms of exploitation. It was fascinating to watch the oft unnoticed dichotomy of personal versus business ethics go unresolved as the weak-hearted chose the well-worn path that leads to the utterance of the line we’ve all heard: “Nothing personal — It’s just business.”
Do you remember Bhopal? It happened the year you graduated. To this day, people are still suffering from Union Carbide’s decision to operate a plant that failed to meet U.S. safety standards. They got away with it because they were operating in India. Faced with these sorts of cases, I was shocked to hear the opinions of most of my classmates; U.S. companies need only meet local safety requirements. Apparently, what’s good for white America is too good for the brown world. And the main reason given? It all boils down to low prices, Wal-mart style.
As the course progressed, I found myself feeling like a victim of a sham company — one who’d taken my money and disappeared into the night without a trace. Here we were, 100+ students, packed into an echo chamber masquerading as a classroom, studying the responsibility of business to its stakeholders, unable to hear an instructor who knew the environment wouldn’t support the format of the class before it even started. I was there during the summer, when he first got word of the University’s decision to merge multiple sections, including a Master’s class, into one giant free-for-all. As I watched the semester unfold, I realized that this institution had failed, at the most basic levels, to practice the very tenets of business which they so rigorously advocate across the curriculum: continuous improvement, customer-centrism, good faith, and the ethical treatment of stakeholders.
In the final analysis, as I reflect upon this course, I realize I got more out of the experience than I initially thought. I witnessed, first hand, how languid our attempts to right wrongs are, and how proficient we can be at adjusting our moral compass to point to whatever inner north benefits our desire to maintain status quo.
In Meditations, Marcus Aurelius speaks eloquently of such practices. It would seem that our business code of ethics has taken a page from Aurelius’ stoics, then applied it in some half-crazed psychotropic manner:
“Say to yourself in the early morning: I shall meet today ungrateful, violent, treacherous, envious, uncharitable men. All of these things have come upon them through ignorance of real good and ill… I can neither be harmed by any of them, for no man will involve me in wrong, nor can I be angry with my kinsman or hate him; for we have come into the world to work together…”
— Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, Book II, Part I
This is NOT to say that I was ever on a concerted journey towards altruism, for I understand ethics must be based on egoism. My direction, most simply described, is the pursuit of happiness; a state wherein I might find equilibrium in my emotional well-being. It is within this framework that I choose to weigh the merits of the actions of myself and others. It is this framework where I define my ethical ethos.
With love, your brother,