On Friday a local columnist in the San Antonio Express News, Rhonda Templeton, wrote about a recent survey of employees lying on the job. I quote: ” Bending the truth is a long time tradition in U.S. workplaces- as the saying goes, ‘There are no ethics in business.'” This inane “quote” (if it’s an axiom it is one I’ve never heard before) surprised me because it was on the front page of the business section, but was far from shocking.
Ms. Templeton should know better. Business ethics are inherently assumed in hundreds of millions of transactions around America every day. When you drop off your clothes at the cleaner’s, you trust that they will do their best to launder them and return them unharmed. When you order in a new restaurant you trust that they will use decent ingredients and reasonably sanitary methods to prepare your meal. When you hire someone to perform services for you, you trust that they can do the work without incident.
Sure, it doesn’t always work out that way, but that is the exception. I’ve been to countries where you cannot assume any of the above about the business you are dealing with. It isn’t fun. One of the things that makes our economy thrive is the tacit assumption that total strangers subscribe to the same general set of business ethics a you. Government regulators can set rules, but they can’t enforce them effectively. Our economy is too big and too complex to pretend that we are motivated to act the way we do in business from fear of being caught.
Earlier in the week, Jay Goltz, a blogger for the New York Times “Your the Boss” small business blog, wrote a piece about keeping a happy workplace. In it he explained that his formula for happy employees included a strategy for removing the unhappy ones. I was happy to note that most of the comments supported his position, but some writers completely vilified him as a sweatshop owner and Gordon Gecko clone.
Small business owners are the great underclass in the United States. They provide 65% of the jobs, but are regularly slammed as money grubbing low lives. Television and film portray the employer-employee relationship as a one-way street of unfair advantage and exploitation. Speaking of Gordon Gecko, I just saw a trailer for the Wall Street sequel. In it Gecko is gloating that what he went to jail for in the 80’s is legal now.
I think Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was a prescient look at the world today. I don’t subscribe to all of the beliefs of Objectivism, but watching the current Congress debate how to raise revenue to help the “poor” is frightening. As one Congressman put it, “If we raise taxes, business owners will figure out how to make more money anyway. It’s what they do.”
If you mention Rand to educated liberals, however, they quickly decry it as some Neanderthal apologia for avarice. If, as they claim, it is merely for knuckle draggers who pine for a lost age of acquisitiveness, there were 500,000 such who were willing to fork up hard cash for the book in 2009 alone. That would mark a huge hit for any 1200 page tome. For some reason, it never places in the NY Times bestseller list.
I ask small business owners if this prejudice bothers them, and get very little reaction. “I watch those (workplace-based) shows,” they say. “They’re funny, and no one thinks they are real.” “I read that column, but what’s the point of writing a letter? The media isn’t interested in our point of view.” And the comment I hear the most? “I can’t pay attention to that, I’m too busy trying to run my business every day.”
Small business owners are a classic version of Spiro Agnew’s Silent Majority. Like Hank Rearden in Rand’s book, we just keep pushing forward doing what we love, and assume the rest of the world can’t be so foolish as to destroy the value we create in an attempt to harness it for their own benefit. We shouldn’t be so sanguine.
When business columnists can lightly toss off a bon mot like “There are no ethics in business.” and neither the editor nor the readers snap to attention, we’ve gone far down the road that Rand predicted.