The Golden Rule – Pick One!

Golden Rule #1treat others the way you’d wish to be treated

Golden Rule #2do what’s necessary to maximize my gold

Business ethics can seem complicated. Frankly, I think most of it boils to down to a pretty straightforward choice:

Do I do what’s right? Or do I do what is expedient to try to ensure maximum (income/profitability/bonus/stock price/etc.)?

What is right? That’s a debate that can draw in threads from theology, philosophy, psychology, and other disciplines, but let’s not over-complicate it. How would you want to be treated in a similar circumstance?

You’re working on the clinical research side of a pharmaceutical company, and a promising drug candidate starts to show some anomalous results. Some potentially dangerous side effects. Not a whole lot, mind you, and just a bit of tweaking and data-scrubbing could get it below the threshold of statistical significance. The company has been investing millions into this product, and the pipeline is a bit thin. Do you report it? Do you “work the numbers”? Do you ignore and cover over the warning signs? How does all this impact your job?

Wrong questions. How about this – would I give this drug to my child?

You have a hot new product coming out, and a potentially large client is very interested. However, they have a short-term delivery need, and you know that you cannot meet it. A competitor has a product, which is adequate, but also has the virtue of being immediately available. If the client standardizes on the competitor’s offering, you lose out in the short-term and the long term. So, do you fudge the truth and figure it will all wash out in the end, or do you put the client’s interest first and speak the truth come what may? (this is not a theoretical case study – I was in this dilemma 15 years ago. Determining the right choice was a no-brainer, but it still hurt to make it!)

Which Golden Rule do you follow? Here are two simple tests: do you like what you see when you look yourself in the mirror? And how do you sleep at night?

One company that seems to embody this principle-centered approach to business is Johnson and Johnson. However imperfectly it is followed by any given individuals in the company, J&J’s one-page Credo is a marvelous example of how to flesh out the Golden Rule – Golden Rule #1, that is – in a business philosophy:

Our Credo

We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients,
to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services.
In meeting their needs everything we do must be of high quality.
We must constantly strive to reduce our costs
in order to maintain reasonable prices.
Customers’ orders must be serviced promptly and accurately.
Our suppliers and distributors must have an opportunity
to make a fair profit.

We are responsible to our employees,
the men and women who work with us throughout the world.
Everyone must be considered as an individual.
We must respect their dignity and recognize their merit.
They must have a sense of security in their jobs.
Compensation must be fair and adequate,
and working conditions clean, orderly and safe.
We must be mindful of ways to help our employees fulfill
their family responsibilities.
Employees must feel free to make suggestions and complaints.
There must be equal opportunity for employment, development
and advancement for those qualified.
We must provide competent management,
and their actions must be just and ethical.

We are responsible to the communities in which we live and work
and to the world community as well.
We must be good citizens – support good works and charities
and bear our fair share of taxes.
We must encourage civic improvements and better health and education.
We must maintain in good order
the property we are privileged to use,
protecting the environment and natural resources.

Our final responsibility is to our stockholders.
Business must make a sound profit.
We must experiment with new ideas.
Research must be carried on, innovative programs developed
and mistakes paid for.
New equipment must be purchased, new facilities provided
and new products launched.
Reserves must be created to provide for adverse times.
When we operate according to these principles,
the stockholders should realize a fair return.

Sure, J&J companies and employees fail to live up to this standard of excellence and fair play every day. But that doesn’t mean that the standard is wrong. Only that, at any given time, individuals choose themselves above others.

What is the root cause of the parade of scandals we see in so many industries? Most of the time, we need look no further than Golden Rule #2.

We moan and groan about Sarbanes-Oxley, shareholder lawsuits, regulatory meddling, and all the other thorny features of rules and disclosures that address wrongdoing. But who is to blame? All those who lead their companies, their teams, and themselves by Golden Rule #2.

I’d love to see some major CEOs take a stand squarely on Golden Rule #1 and drive it throughout the entire organization, come whatever may. The short-term disruption would pale compared to the long-term benefit of a brand that puts others first on a consistent basis. And, of course, following Golden Rule #1 is likely to be the best way of attaining that other kind of gold anyway!

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