Street-Smart Ethics: Succeeding in Business Without Selling Your SoulStreet-Smart Ethics: Succeeding in Business Without Selling Your Soul
Clinton W. McLemore
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Psychologist and consultant Clinton McLemore recognizes how difficult it is to survive, much less thrive, in today's business environment. Success, as it is currently defined, usually depends on winning or beating out the competition - often placing incredible pressures on business professionals. Divided into three sections - an action-packed primer on ethics, a collection of Proverbs-based guidelines for business, and a host of ethical brainteasers - Street-Smart Ethics seeks to navigate modern businessmen and businesswomen through the real-world ethical decisions they must make every day. With engaging writing and a lack of insider language and textbook jargon, Street-Smart Ethics is an essential guide for everyone involved in today's complex business world.
     

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Introduction

Life is filled with exciting and mind-boggling challenges, especially ethical ones. These challenges should be approached humbly but, at the same time, with a certain exhilaration and sophistication. This sophistication does not come from memorizing facts, learning to dazzle people with five-dollar words, or even reading the abstract works of eminent thinkers - although such reading can sometimes help. It comes mostly from being on the front lines, engaging with the complexities of everyday human existence, reflecting on what matters most in life, and caring enough to find out what others before you have considered important, and why. Our existence, if it is anything, is an adventure.
This is not a watered-down book filled with fluff or casual anecdotes. There are already enough books like that to fill the Queen Mary, including a number purporting to teach readers about ethics. It is a book that, I hope, will stimulate your thinking. While I make no attempt to offer legal advice in these pages, and precious little in the way of philosophical advice either, I think you will enjoy grappling with the issues and problems that I have laid out. Having worked as an organizational psychologist for almost two decades with some of the world's premier companies, I know how exciting work can be. I also know that it can be stressful. One purpose of this book is to help reduce whatever stresses you may feel when you confront ethical problems.
The term ethics, which can be traced back to Aristotle's Nicomachean Ethics, is based on the Greek word ethos. Similarly the term morality can be traced back to the Latin word mores. Both mean having to do with habits, customs, and behavior. Today we usually use ethics to mean "relating to goodness" or, perhaps more exactingly, "rules, standards, or principles of goodness."
It is not easy to survive, much less thrive, in many modern business environments. The success of for-profit enterprises usually depends on winning, on beating out the competition, and this sometimes puts pressures on us that would have made a gladiator wince. It is impossible to cooperate and compete at the same time, which means that, when you get right down to it and have to choose, you cannot work simultaneously for and against the interests of another person or enterprise. We must constantly choose which of the two to do, and in what measure. As a result, real-world ethical decisions can test the mettle of the best of us.
The ethical problems we face, if not every day then frequently, often compel us to pit one obligation against another, the interests of X against those of Y, and sometimes to make compromises between competing but equally compelling duties. An ever-present challenge in life, for example, lies in finding ways to take care of others (individuals, groups, institutions, or society) without, at the same time, unduly injuring our loved ones or ourselves. The hard part comes when we must decide what, precisely, the term unduly means in the last sentence (not to mention "taking care of"). It may signify one thing to an unmarried soldier but quite another to a mother with small children. While we may not always be able to "do no harm," most of us want to minimize whatever harm we do. The question becomes how, precisely, to achieve this, especially when there are multiple possible harms, at least one of which must be done.
This book is divided into three parts. The first is a relatively short and, I hope, action-packed primer on ethics. It begins with an analysis of the much-publicized case of Enron. Prior to discoveries relating to WorldCom in the Spring of 2002, the massive economic deflation of enron Corporation sent shockwaves through financial markets around the globe. Its dramatic loss in value ("capitalization") was, at the time, the largest failure in the annals of American business, a loss that was more than doubled by the later devaluation of WorldCom.
I emphasize at the outset that everything in this book relating to Arthur Andersen LLP, Enron Corporation, Global Crossing, and WorldCom - or for that matter any other company - is based on information presented in the public record, specifically in the news media. While little ambiguity remains about the financial status of Enron, Global Crossing, and WorldCom - all one need do is look up their respective stock prices - the nature and extent of culpability, if any, on the part of these or any other company mentioned in this book, or of any individual connected with them, remains to be determined.
After identifying the more salient ethical issues to emerge from these case studies, we will move on to these important topics: the relationship between law and ethics; choices open to us in the face of pressures to behave unethically; simple versus complex ethical dilemmas and the nature of "tragic moral choices"; how ethical problems may usefully be viewed through the lenses of a personal liability suit, specifically of a kind of malpractice; the psychological processes that sometimes accompany ethical-legal infractions; and, very briefly, the two major ways in which some of the world's greatest thinkers have approached normative ethics. I will also present some practical tools for ethical decision making. These will not always tell you exactly what to do when you face some of the more complex ethical trade-offs discussed in Part I, but they should sensitize you to the kinds of ethical subtleties you may encounter in your work.
The second part of Sreet-Smart Ethics is different in both tone and content. Presenting fifty guidelines based on one of civilization's most impressive works of literature (book of Proverbs), it emphasizes the value of simple prudence. Among the best ways I know of staying out of trouble is to avoid situations that, by nature, seem to breed it. I discussed all but one of these proverbs in an earlier book, Good Guys Finish First, and have included them here because, in my judgment, they were just too valuable to leave out. Although I have revised and updated this material, the core message of these "wise sayings" has not changed in thousands of years: Steer clear of trouble by spotting it well in advance and by acting honorably, conscientiously, and nobly. This, I contend, is the essence of being "street-smart" in the best sense of the term.
In the third and final part of the book, I present a set of objective questions that will allow you to evaluate your sensitivity to ethical issues. I have also included eight ethical brainteasers that I believe you will enjoy and perhaps find challenging. The majority of them are complex problems that are not amenable to quick or easy answers. You will have to think about them. One level of achievement, perhaps a modest one, is to come up with acceptable answers - acceptable in the judgment of most other able, sane, and conscientious people. A level of achievement up from that is to be able to articulate, with reasonable clarity, why you chose one alternative over another. Still a higher level of ethical competence is to be able to identify all relevant ethical considerations inherent in each problem and then systematically to reason your way through the sometimes baffling maze of real-life possibilities. Perhaps a level higher yet - and one that we do not aspire to here - is to be able to justify your decision making in a manner that would please a professional philosopher, at least to the extent that you would be able to account for your decisions by recourse to one of the well-established ethical approaches that we touch on, briefly, at the conclusion of Chapter 6.
M. Scott Peck's much-celebrated Road Less Traveled correctly informs us that life is difficult. It is the moral ambiguity woven into the fabric of existence that largely makes it so.

 
    Excerpted from Street-Smart Ethics: Succeeding in Business Without Selling Your Soul by Clinton W. McLemore.
    John Knox, 2003
    All rights reserved