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The Lie of the Land

July 05, 2002|DAVID D. PERLMUTTER | David D. Perlmutter is an associate professor of mass communication at Louisiana State University and a senior fellow at the Reilly Center for Media & Public Affairs. He is the author of "Policing the Media" (Sage, 2000).

A fish counter at a supermarket in my city is occasionally staffed by a fellow whom my family likes to think of as a former Enron executive--or maybe he's from Arthur Andersen, Tyco, Adelphia or WorldCom. Pointing to gray, pungent salmon steaks I ask with a straight face: "Are these fresh?" Without blinking he will nod. "Sure. Just in." I thank him, move on and return another day when one of the other clerks will crack open the actually fresh fish box in the back.

I've often thought of confronting "Captain Pinocchio," as our family dubs him. How can you just stand there and lie? About fish?

Alas, I'm sure he thinks of himself as an honorable man. And so do they all, big and small: Tyco's L. Dennis Kozlowski (accused of tax avoidance), Andersen's Joseph Bernardino (accused of overseeing obstruction of justice in the Enron case), Bernard Ebbers of WorldCom (accused of sweethearting himself a $366-million loan), John Rigas et familia of Adelphia, who made billions in loans to themselves out of the company cookie jar, the Merrill Lynch "advisors" fined $100 million for their misleading, self-interested recommendations of garbage stocks and, of course, the capos of the Enron mafia.

That's the problem. Ethics has become such a marginal component of business education and training that more and more people, from the local fishmonger to the Lear-jetting CEO, think that doing good business has nothing to do with doing good.

The big fallout of the collapse of what used to be norms of ethical business practice is obvious: The markets are as lifeless as those salmon cuts, and some companies are belly-up. Good news, like unexpectedly green earning reports, used to drive rallies. Now, who doesn't assume good news is just a prestidigitation of shady accounting?

But, as a teacher, I see the smaller, more personal wounds of the culture of "unethics."

Every semester, each course I teach features a session that I dread. I call it "E" day. For students, that term signifies exams, but for me it's the class period in which we specifically discuss ethics. No other three hours of my life leave me as gloomy.

One lad worked at a fast-food restaurant. He was given comprehensive training in the chain's hygiene regime, whose published codes would have satisfied NASA technicians. But then the lunch shift began, and the customers wanted their curly fries right away. And the counter was short-staffed. And the manager was yelling to "pump them out." So little details, like washing hands after going to the bathroom or handling money, or changing the oil in the frying bin or using a hankie when sneezing, got shunted aside.

Another student's father was a property appraiser. The real estate agents make it clear that unless he inflates the price of the houses he evaluates, he will not get their business again. A young man relates that, at a magazine where he interned, "the news guys print stories that the advertising guys tell them to."

Over and over, story after story, the pattern is the same. Companies list and preach often voluminous ethical rules or guidelines. Then everyone is put into situations of customer pressure, deadlines, sales-volume demands, profit maximization targets and productivity quotas that make following the ethical path impossible, or at least career-dampening.

Many of my students register the ambiguous ethical messages of the workplace as confirmation of their cynicism. "How can we be ethical when the company isn't?" one challenged me. Others anguish over their principles, religious and secular, crashing into the demands of their vocational aspirations.

Of course corporations are reaping what they sow--and in more than depressed stock prices. A survey of businesses, government agencies and nonprofit groups by the accounting firm KPMG found that losses from employee theft more than doubled from 1994 to 2000. Employee thieving now costs about five times as much in goods as shoplifting. We need an ethical revolution in the modern workplace, where companies appoint "integrity specialists" to the management team and ethicists to the board of directors. Perhaps, too, investment analysts should rate companies on scales of integrity.

Such moves toward restoring faith in business would help at the top. Among the sales clerks and fry chefs, the first issue is learning to treat the customer as a human being to be respected, not a rube on the midway. I'm enough of a sucker to believe that most workers at least want to be honest on the job, but they need the leadership and incentives to be so.

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