Moral Relativism in Business

I had the very good fortune to hear Mark Whiteacre speak a few years ago. Mark is the subject of the Hollywood movie The Informant, which I have still yet to see. But I would be surprised if any movie could be as riveting as hearing the twists, and gut wrenching turns, of Mark’s story from his own mouth. For those of you not familiar with Mark’s story, he was involved in a price fixing scandal when he worked for Archer Daniels Midland Corp, which landed him in the Federal penitentiary for 10 years. Mark was an intelligent professional, a family man, and a person who seemed like a good guy and a go getter — like so many people in the business world. He was so transparent in telling his story- and it was clear that when he was making these horrible decisions, that would move him from a life of luxury to being behind bars- he could justify his thought process to himself, convincing himself that it was all ok.

Mark was brought into the bank where I worked as a case study for employees to understand how easily people can convince themselves that bad — and immoral- decisions, are ok. I give the management of the bank high marks for addressing this issue head on. This all brings me to thinking today about how we live in a culture where moral relativism is the norm. We seem to be reluctant to acknowledge that there is absolute truth (which is now replaced with “my truth”), or definitive right and wrong. Paraphrasing C.S. Lewis- we are crystal clear on what is definitely wrong when we are on the receiving end of an injustice — so why is it so hard to believe that there are, in fact, some actual universal truths when it comes to what is moral?

This becomes important in business. As Mr. Whiteacre had convinced himself — if “everyone is doing it”, or “my boss signed off on it”, become the ways that we decide whether something is ok, we need to seriously evaluate if we have a moral compass. Too often today in business it seems that the question is more “will regulators allow this”- when in fact, that can’t be the best question about right and wrong. Regulators aren’t necessarily going to be up to speed on the latest innovation — so the “is it legal” question should be replaced by the “is it right” question. This only works, of course, in a world where there is some semblance of acceptance of the existence if right and wrong — which is why this concept needs to be embraced both in business and in life.

I actually think that the more important person in the Mark Whiteacre story is his wife. Mrs. Whiteacre learned about her husband’s misdeeds, and told him that he needed to turn himself into the FBI — or she would do it for him. She loved him, so this wasn’t the act of a spiteful woman. It was that she understood that doing wrong isn’t excused by love — and because he wouldn’t call the FBI, she did. I can’t actually imagine how hard it was for her to do that, but from the telling of the story it did sound as though she genuinely didn’t know that her phone call would result in his incarceration. But no matter what, she did the right thing and their whole family paid a very large price for it. But there is a happy ending to this story — Mrs. Whiteacre and their 3 children moved near the prison where he was jailed, and visited him every single day. That is love. But it also caused Mark Whiteacre to eventually realize that the cause of his misery was himself. He also realized that he caused a lot of pain for his family. He said in his talk that had his wife not turned him in, and had he received a lesser sentence than 10 years, he never really would have accepted or believed that he really did the wrong thing and that this whole mess was his own fault — not the boss who said it was ok, and not the rest of the industry who was “doing the same thing”.

I think there is a lesson in this for how we conduct ourselves in every single business decision. We can ask ourselves:

  1. If my action were described on the front page of the Wall Street Journal, would I be proud of the story?
  2. If someone treated my grandmother the way I am treating my coworker, client or shareholders, would I applaud it?
  3. Is everything I am saying and doing completely honest — no hidden agenda, no distorted facts?
  4. Even if what I am doing is legal, is it right? Would I be happy being treated this way?

It all seems so simple, and most of us would easily say “of course!” to all of this. When you hear Mark Whiteacre’s story — where the glamour of riches clouded his vision- you can also see where, under certain circumstances, seemingly reasonable people can convince themselves otherwise. I would hope that we would not only be people who do the right thing, but like Mrs. Whiteacre have the strength of fortitude to not to look the other way and ignore questionable morals in our workplaces. Like Mrs. Whiteacre it is important to embrace that there is absolute right and wrong, whether it is convenient and easy, or not.