Business Ethics Extremes

Business Leaders are often put in this place of being either completely fallible or completely infallible and anything in between is absurd. It is easy for the every day Joe to crucify the man who has lots of money, but he also respects him for taking advantage of every position he has. It’s almost a jealousy and a want to be part of the club.

Here is a great example of Sam Zell, the real estate mogul, being taken to task for the unethical behavior of the leaders of other corporations in an article called Rough Riders in the New Yorker:

A couple of years ago, Zell’s close friend Will Weinstein, a money
manager who was teaching at the University of Hawaii, asked Zell to
address a class on business ethics. Several of Enron’s leading
executives were on trial at the time, for fraud and other crimes.
Weinstein had opened the session to the public, and someone in the
audience asked Zell whether, in the current environment, “where some
seem to be doing almost anything to be profitable, does not the concept
of ‘business ethics’ seem to be an oxymoron? And do you accept that
there is a concept of greed? And how would you define it?”

Mr. Zell didn’t like the fact he was being painted at one end of the spectrum without at the least the acknowledgment of the other end:

“Jesus Christ!” Zell replied. “I mean, would you like a pulpit as
well? I mean, when does the indictment come out? I mean, are people in
the business community different from you, or you, or you?” He pointed
angrily at the questioner and others nearby. “C’mon! We’re talking
about weaknesses and we’re talking about strengths! Are human ethics an
oxymoron? I don’t think so. Neither do I think business ethics are an
oxymoron. It’s real fun to take a shot at the business community. After
all, those motherfuckers are getting all the money, right? But let me
tell you something: I’ll put my work schedule against anybody you know,
including you, and I work my ass off every day! The idea that somehow
or other the business community is full of all these greedy
characters—you should see the greed in teachers’ unions! You should see
the greed in any political organization! Business is made up of a whole
group of individuals, and within that group there are straight people,
there are not-straight people, and then there’s a whole bunch of us in
the middle, who some days are straight and some days we’re not.”

Weinstein looked alarmed. “You’re not honestly putting yourself in that middle category?”

“Oh sure, why not?” Zell replied. “St. Sam—that’s an oxymoron.”

But Mr. Zell hits it exactly. He works hard and deserves what he gets. His risk is greater than others. He understands that business ethics might be black and white, but context is not.


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