When seeking a hot debate of business ethics, one only has to mention “Bain Capital” in a room full of Romney opponents.
Stephanie Cutter, President Obama’s deputy campaign manager, blasted Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney by detailing his time both as governor of Massachusetts and at Bain Capital.
“At Bain Capital, Romney made millions by closing plants, laying off workers and shipping their jobs overseas. As governor, Romney’s Massachusetts was 47th out of 50 in job creation,” Cutter wrote in a memo to the Washington Post. “At Bain Capital, Romney ran companies into debt and bankruptcy. As governor, Romney ran up debt in Massachusetts, even as he raised taxes and fees on middle-class families and businesses.”
As these attacks on Romney continue, there are some experts who believe that there is a stigma that people in the finance world are “sleazy,” and that assumption isn’t always true.
Robert Shiller, an American economist and professor of economics at Yale University, recently wrote about the tendency that many have to label businesspeople as amoral in a column in Businessweek.
“Even if wealthy people plan to give away all their money and possessions eventually, no one else knows their ultimate intentions, and thus others are naturally suspicious of them,” Shiller said in his column. “Such suspicion may express itself in a tendency to brand all of the rich as sleazy.”
Shiller said that there are certainly amoral people in the world of finance, but that doesn’t mean moral people don’t exist in business. He also said that it’s sometimes hard to see the moral actions in finance.
“The practice of finance doesn’t universally incline its practitioners to sleazy behavior,” Shiller wrote. “It also rewards people with a certain kind of moral purpose — one that may be visible to outsiders only intermittently. Day to day, it is hard to see the moral purpose inherent in helping one’s clients, and so it is easy to conclude that such moral purpose doesn’t even exist among people in finance.”
Chris MacDonald, a business ethics consultant and philosophy professor at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax, Canada, also wrote about the nature of business ethics.
“People too often think of the word(s) ‘business ethics’ as implying an attempt to define and achieve saintly behaviour in business,” MacDonald wrote in a recent column in Canadian Business. “And that's a mistake. What we're really talking about are reasonable constraints, and reasonable standards of achievement, in the world of commerce.”
Of course, there is a level of amoral behavior that exists in business. Just ask the CEO of Olympus Corp., who noticed irregularities in the company’s accounting and wanted answers from colleagues. The company then dismissed him.
Tim Clark, an international management consultant and columnist for the Deseret News, wrote about the Olympus incident and how morals in business build value in a recent article.
“When ethics trump economics, organizations keep their promises, establish enduring trust and create more long-term value,” Clark wrote. “On the other hand, when everything is for sale, employees reduce things to a simple risk/reward calculation. But sooner or later, there’s a breakdown in the system. The only questions are when and how big.”