Why Be Ethical?

Published: April 22, 2009

By Jim Lichtman
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A weekend conversation with a friend prompted the following: “Why be ethical?  What’s the payoff?”

The standard fall-back:  “Virtue is its own reward.”

Another might be the adage by Louis Armstrong when asked the definition of Jazz: “If you have to ask… you’ll never know.”

The reality is that most of us face issues that challenge our ethical integrity on a regular basis.  Whether it’s considering telling a relative that the Christmas gift they just gave us isGreat; or fudging the numbers on our income tax; all of us are constantly tested.

Reality #2:  Good character isn’t always easy.  Let’s face it, if it were easy, everybody’d be doing it!

So what is the payoff for being ethical?

Well, if trust is important to you in all your relationships; if honesty and integrity are qualities you need to depend on, then we need to practice good ethical behavior in everything we do, not just when it’s convenient.

When the going gets tough, I recall the words of those who have faced far worse than me.

In speaking with Jeffrey Wigand, the tobacco insider who blew the whistle on decades of lies told by the tobacco industry – after he lost his job, his home, his wife, and for a time, his reputation – I asked him, if he had it to do all over again, would he still come forward.

“In a heartbeat,” he said.  “I have no rancor or regrets.  I did what I thought was right and would do it again.  Each of us should realize that we can make a difference.”

In 1982, when several poisonings had been linked to Tylenol capsules, Johnson & Johnson Chairman James Burke called for the removal of all forms of Tylenol from every store in the country.  Although Tylenol accounted for $100 million annually, Burke demonstrated that the public’s safety was the company’s first priority.

“As I look back on Tylenol,” Burke told me, “I think that the only way we could have done what we did was to have all of the institutions that were affected by the Tylenol poisonings believe in us.  Whether it was the head of the FBI, the FDA or the people at the White House.  There was no lack of trust about Johnson & Johnson.  There was no thought that this was something that we were doing that was only in our own self-interest.”

Cynthia Cooper’s life changed when she exposed the massive fraud at WorldCom.  “The foundation of our character,” she reminded me, “is laid brick by brick, formed decision by decision throughout our lives.  My challenge to students is to draw clear, ethical boundaries and think about the decisions they make every day.”

Lewis Merletti was the director of the Secret Service during the Clinton administration who refused Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr’s Motion to Compel agents to testify about Clinton’s activities with Monica Lewinsky.   Merletti’s response makes clear the importance of standing up for a principle even when dealing with the unsavory and unethical acts of others:

“When I speak to agents upon their graduation,” Merletti told me, “I tell them that the most important factor in the Secret Service Commission Book is the one which [states]:  ‘I commend you to the entire world as being worthy of Trust andConfidence.’  This trust and confidence cannot be situational.  It cannot have an expiration date, and must never be compromised.”

“Character is laid one decision at a time… Must never be compromised… did what I thought was right and would do itagain in a heartbeat… ”

This is the path to trust and character.

However, trust sometimes comes with a price.  Sometimes we must choose between what we want and what we want to beand whether we can look in the mirror and not look away.

We need more people like Cynthia Cooper and Jeff Wigand who are willing to tell the truth no matter the cost.

We need directors like Lewis Merletti who stand for principle over expediency.

And we need more CEOs like James Burke who are willing to stand up sometimes before shareholders’ and explain why a $100 million loss is necessary in order to protect the public’s trust in a valued company.

“The greatest way to live with honor,” Socrates said, “is to be what we pretend to be.”

Let’s strive to lead our lives with honor.  Let’s commit to a set of standards that we know to be right and let’s show others – through our own actions – just what we stand for and why.


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