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Commentary: A Hippocratic Oath for business

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 9, 2009 - According to a recent New York Times article, "A Promise to Be Ethical in an Era of Immorality," MBA students at some of the nation's most prestigious business schools are making pledges to be ethical and serve the greater good. This seems like pretty good news, something more than a kind of post-hangover swearing off of tequila.

Still, I am reminded of the time when I called on the CEO of a large local company to talk about its ethics program and he proudly produced its pledge, a "one pager, we have everyone sign when they start."

The theory was

  • make it clear,
  • have them sign it
  • and if there is any straying, well, fire the bad actor and move on.

Oh, for the days when pledges, signed documents, a handshake or one's word could be counted on to signify a solid step in the right direction!
Before you think me a cynic, let's take a look at what is no longer guaranteed by things like contracts, promises or The Law: Retirees pension benefits. Campaign promises from either party. Our country's commitment to the Geneva Conventions anti-torture provisions. The respectability of Manny Ramirez and A-Rod's stats.

And some day soon we might add promises made by business students before they actually go to work in business.

Before celebrations begin in Ivory Towers about this positive development, we should recall the penitent times post-Millken, post-Enron, post-Savings & Loan Crisis and recognize that it takes something more than the occasional drift of a few bad actors to pull the rest of the team into the tank.

So, do we really want to place our bets on promises made by students of good will and optimism when there are at least two other and more important options for tempering the worst abuses of our current form of capitalism?

Greed and its smarmier cousin enlightened self-interest fueled each of these meltdowns and will likely contribute to the as-yet-unknown meltdown next time. Pledges are fine. But a huge leap forward could come about should some of the greater lights of business to create a Business Oath of Conduct. My pick for the team to develop this would include Warren Buffett, Ray Anderson of Interface and soon-to-retire Xerox CEO, Anne M. Mulcahy. To them I would add a few of the business leaders from the Ethisphere list of most influential people in business ethics.

Have this team create a business version of the Hippocratic Oath. That oath seems to cover a lot of the important bases for the practice of medicine. Even if it does not immediately give guidance to what an ethical practitioner of business should do and not do, Hippocrates' most famous line, "First do no harm," does seem as though it would add significantly to framing a true business oath.

The second option is tougher penalties for misbehavior.

The oft-derided and certainly terribly expensive Sarbanes-Oxley legislation was an initial stab at this. It holds business leaders responsible for more of what goes on in their companies. It is an inelegant legislative attempt to have those who reap the greatest benefits of a company's activities bear the greatest responsibility for its adherence to ethical standards and to the law.

It seems quite reasonable to ask why -- when we can lock up a 15 year old in a really atrocious prison (a 15 year old who cannot vote, drink, drive or legally miss school) for armed robbery -- we don't see lawmakers, inside traders, bad bankers, wanton polluters in real jail, with real prisoners and doing real time. An added benefit to this approach might be real prison reform as the Have's find out what happens to too many of the Have Not's who are, like them, felons and convicted ones at that.

With both a clear framework for ethical practice and more significant consequences for business malpractice, we might see the conduct of a larger percentage of the greediest business people shifting to become more ethical, humane and legal -- even if only because it would cost them too much to be otherwise.

Steve Lawler is a St Louis based writer, organizational psychologist and Episcopal priest. He is the author of the forthcoming novel, “Father FX Explains God.” He teaches leadership at Washington University.