2012 Top Ten Business Ethics Milestones

 By W.T. “Bill” McKibben, Senior Counsel, The Great Lakes Group

As we wrap 2012, members of the business community step back and reflect upon the results of their business efforts.  Almost everyone, and almost every business strives and succeeds to maintain the highest ethical standards. Everything comes down to reputation. It’s our nature, and we know that our most precious asset is our reputation. After all, who wants to do business with a crook? It is, however, a struggle; and it’s too easy to take that first little step over the line onto the slippery slope. Of course there are those who seem ethically challenged. They spend a lot of time and treasure scheming and even more trying to cover their tracks. Ultimately they end up at the bottom of the slope, way past ethics into criminal territory. Most of this year’s milestones fall into the latter category, but there are some outstanding rays of sunshine.  This is my list of “Business Ethics Milestones” for 2012.  (I’d love to hear about your ethics selections.  Please comment below) 

#10 Let’s start out with some good news. A nationwide research study by Satmetrix, a West Coast provider of customer experience software, measured the attitudes of 30,000 consumers. Their findings reinforce the ethical business model’s value. It’s no surprise that companies boasting a long history of ethical standards top the list. Wegmans, Costco, Apple, Jet Blue, American Express, Virgin America, Amazon, Lowes, Google, all the usual suspects lead when it comes to doing the right thing. And guess what? They are leaders when you check their bottom-line.

#9 There’s no such glow when you look at a few of our wealthiest Americans and biggest financial institutions; you get more of a greasy sleazy feeling. They think nothing of turning our commodity markets into gambling halls, manipulating the price of food and fuel. Markets designed to support commodity producers have become a playpen for those with more money than morals. There’s a cure: limit commodity purchases to end-users. Good for producers, good for end-users, good for consumers, good for America.

#8 The ethical cesspool at the center of the media colossus Rupert Murdoch spawned on London’s Fleet Street, is beginning to suck him into its vortex. Unfortunately, it’s spread beyond his native Australia and Great Britain; it has spilled onto our shores. Murdoch became an American citizen so he could legally own broadcast properties here. He bought a couple smarmy newspapers like his British rags. He has also taken over and is twisting the once the once well-regarded Wall Street Journal. His big bucks come from broadcast holdings; satellite operations in Asia and Great Britain, cable outlets here. And then there’s his production arm producing television programs and motion pictures. Murdoch lunged over a line that most media tend to avoid, plunging into politics, even attempting to pick out his own presidential candidate. That kind of activity is common in Great Britain, not so much on this side of the pond. It’s especially disturbing when practiced by Scum-Lord Rupert Murdoch. 

#7 Big Pharma’s Big Con. The real cost of bringing a new drug to market averages $90 million a pop; a lot of money but a fraction of the$1.3 billion dollars they claim. Unless of course you include marketing, that’s where the big bucks go: flooding doctors’ offices with materials and samples, even hiring them to pitch other docs on the newest, latest, slightly updated drug. Add in the avalanche of print and television advertising urging patients to pressure their doc. It all adds up to sky high drug prices. Prices protected by a law prohibiting the government from negotiating lower prices– all courtesy of Big Pharma’s friends in the Congress. It’s enough to make you sick. 

# 6 When the lobbyists pushed through “The Commodity Futures Modernization Act” opening up Wall Street to gambling, they unleashed a chain of events that resulted in the collapse of the world economy eight years later. Wall Street began leaping one ethical barrier after another and today everyone but the bankers is suffering. Dodd-Frank is designed to rein in some of the worst of this. The bankers are fighting these sensible controls. Our economic future depends on how it works out. 

#5 Foxconn, a Taiwanese company with operations in China and around the world, makes many of the electronic toys that fill our lives. A British newspaper report described the life of a 21-year-old woman working ninety hours a week for less than fifty dollars a month. They calculated that allowing for inflation that fifty bucks comes to, “about half the wage weavers earned in Liverpool and Manchester in 1805.” Ponder that ethical issue the next time you finger the electronic toys in your pocket.

#4 Little did we know that the HSBC slogan, “Bank as easily around the world as you do at home” was to be taken literally. That this British “too-big-to-fail” bank was laundering cash for Mexican Drug Lords, hiding funds from the IRS in far off India for wealthy Americans, providing US currency to a Middle Eastern bank said to be a source of terrorist funding, and generally thumbing their nose at American laws and regulators. And surprise, it looks like none of the big-wigs are facing jail. The bank is going to get off with a fine that amounts to pocket change for them, just another minor cost of doing business.

#3 “Income Inequality” is a really big deal in the minds of Americans. A Pew study found it to be our greatest source of tension. Two thirds of the respondents see the divide between the super rich and those on down the food chain as our major concern. Reinforcing that view, in a Bloomberg Global Poll more than 1,200 investors, analysts and traders say it harms the economy and harms growth. Why is nobody willing to do anything about it?

#2 How can we turn our backs on sexual abuse? The Church, College Athletics, The Boy Scouts, who knows where it will be found next? The abuse of our children by institutions we trust is horrific, to cover it up is unforgivable.

#1 The Gift of Life – 4,800 people died last year waiting for a kidney. There were nearly 100,000 waiting for one a few months ago. The numbers are similar across organ donation programs. How could that happen? Consider that the latest available annual highway death toll (2010) totaled 32,885 individuals, a tragic number. But most with healthy organs, it’s disgraceful that so few remember that should something fatal befall us, our organs could help others live. Encouraging organ donation should be a primary focus. We can think of no higher moral and ethical goal than assuring that if we give up our lives, we give life to others.


 About the Author: Bill McKibben’s career in communications spans several decades. A Hall of Fame Broadcaster, writer and journalist, he has also managed and owned major market radio and TV stations as well as a communications and marketing firm. Clients often refer to him as their “Corporate Conscience.” “Play Nice, Make Money”, his book on business ethics makes the case for an Ethical Business model as the most effective route to profitability. Learn more about “ethics” at Bill’s website, www.ethics-guru.com Email Bill: wt@mckibben.com