Business Ethics at the Moment of McClellan

Lawyer Stephen Goldman compares the former White House spokesman to employees everywhere

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Do most executives think they've got workplace ethics under control?

Either they think of themselves as ethical people or, I'm afraid in the case of many CEOs, they think ethics is for other people. They're in a position of power, and they can get away with what they want. When I had readers in mind as I was writing, I rarely had CEOs in mind. Because CEOs, as a class, think they know it already. After all, that's how they got to be CEOs. Obviously, there are exceptions. I'm making a generalization. So who most needs guidance on business ethics?

The people that I had in mind were people who were rising in management. There have been studies that indicate that young people want to go to companies that they feel good about. We as Americans work awfully hard at work. And people want to be happy, or be satisfied—to feel good about themselves. They don't want to work for Enron. They don't want to be Ken Lay—even if Ken Lay hadn't been caught. They want something better. The other group I had in mind was human resources people. How can a company create a systemic way for people to make ethical decisions?

The first and foremost thing is that the people at the top have to not just talk the talk but walk the walk. They have to really say that we put a premium on trust and honesty. They must create an atmosphere in which shenanigans aren't tolerated. The second thing is that people need to be attuned to the idea that ethical issues arise not from abstract theories. They arise from the facts—what really happened in a particular case, what you should really do in a particular case.