Ethics are on everyone’s mind these days, so it wasn’t a surprise when my May editorial (“Artful Dodgers,” p. 6) received more feedback than this column usually gets. I had already decided that the subject needed a reprise when, lo and behold, I was handed more grist for the mill. Just as the Enron scandal moved off the front pages, the roster of miscreants swelled with the ranks of the newly disgraced. As we go to press, luminaries to join the list include ImClone Systems ex-chief Samuel Waksal, former Tyco International CEO L. Dennis Kozlowski, and assorted analysts at Merrill Lynch who deluded us with pipe dreams of instant wealth.
As with everything else, there’s money to be made in righteousness. (One recruiter e-mailed me claiming a unique expertise in finding honest CEOs!) In the coming months, fleets of lawyers, accountants, and regulators will no doubt be kept busy deciphering phony balance sheets. But what can we do on a personal level to keep our heads clear and careers on an even keel? Some thoughts and homilies:
Look for role models
It used to be that you could trust religious or spiritual advisors, but unfortunately, it appears that many of these people aren’t reliable. So we’re left with friends, relatives, and community and business leaders. Who do you believe sets an example of admirable and ethical conduct?
If you have erred, tell the truth from the beginning, and you’ll probably have an easier time of it — with your conscience and in the media — than if you persist in denial all the way to the lock-up.
Don’t ignore red flags. “The next time something looks too good to be true, we hope to have the wisdom to see it and the courage of our conviction to act accordingly,” said Goldman Sachs Group chairman and CEO Henry Paulson Jr. when he recently called for widespread reform of accounting and business practices.
Watch the numbers
With accounting’s reputation so deeply tarnished, any and all records are likely to come under deep scrutiny. Make sure yours are detailed, accurate, and true.
Consider family ties
Yes, public scandals eventually blow over. But do you think you could ever look your son or daughter in the eye and justify your misdeeds?
Be wary of the familiar
In a June 7 New York Times op-ed column, Nicholas D. Kristof pointed out that because of our preoccupation with foreign terrorists, we ignore “all-American Osamas” — home-grown fanatics who seem like harmless kooks but present real threats. How often, in the business world, have we overlooked something that seemed off-kilter because “that’s the way it’s always been?”