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Most readers give business passing grades in ethics

In a time of increased scrutiny of business ethics, fueled by the U.S. financial crisis, the majority of respondents to this week’s RBJ Daily Report Snap Poll gave passing grades to U.S. businesses for honesty and ethical conduct.

Nine percent gave a failing grade of F, while 14 percent gave the top grade of A. One-third said U.S. businesses deserve a middle-of-the-road C.

Nearly 60 percent of readers said unethical behavior in business is more common than it was 20 years ago. Two-thirds said their companies have formal ethics programs.

Readers were divided when asked whether people have different sets of ethical standards for business and their personal lives. Fifty-three percent answered yes; 47 percent said no.

Since 2003, the Rochester Area Business Ethics Foundation has honored local companies that exemplify high standards of ethical behavior in their daily business practices and in response to challenges or crises. The 2009 awards are to be given out at a luncheon on Tuesday at the Rochester Riverside Convention Center. (During the event, attendees will be able to weigh in on additional questions using electronic polling devices.)

More than 425 readers participated in this week’s poll, conducted Sept. 14 and 15.

In general, what grade would you give business for honesty and ethical conduct?
A: 14%
B: 27%
C: 32%
D: 18%
F: 9%

In your view, is unethical behavior in business less common or more common than it was 20 years ago?
More common: 59%
Unchanged: 23%
Less common: 18%

Do you think people have a different set of ethical standards in business than they do in their personal lives?
Yes: 53%
No: 47%

Does your company have a compliance and ethics program?
Yes: 66%
No: 34%

Here are some readers’ comments:

I work in the IT industry and find unethical business dealings to be the exception. When unethical conduct happens, it is usually at an individual level and never in writing. Usually the unethical person gets found out and disappears. The trustworthy people tend to last.
—Dennis Ditch, Delta Square

I don’t think most companies deliberately let their ethics and honesty standards slip. The culture today is one of severe contention—survival of the fittest, if you will. Therefore companies are trying to operate in a much leaner atmosphere, and that means they may tend to take shortcuts. Those shortcuts lead to deterioration of ethics and honesty.
—Phil Turturici, Absolute Consulting

Compared with business in most other countries, I think U.S. business and government have considerably higher ethical standards. At the same time, I think too many U.S. businesses continue to think they can buy influence in government and other businesses rather than procure business on the merits.
—Nathan J. Robfogel

Increased public awareness is facilitated by media diligence. Businesses must operate ethically or perish.
—Marty Palumbos, PS&E Plan to Prosper

Rochester Area Business Ethics Foundation believes that one of the best ways to promote ethical conduct in business is to create and promote a community conversation. Thanks for helping us attain that goal.
—Alan Ziegler, president, Rochester Area Business Ethics Foundation

Although my opinion may be controversial, I believe the answer to the question depends on one’s definition of ethical. If ethical business behavior is defined as the fair treatment of employees, full disclosure of financials, environmentally friendly practices, etc., then yes, I believe companies have to be more ethical these days. However, if you define ethical as not sending manufacturing jobs overseas, not hiring offshore companies to provide business services and not contributing to the declining standard of living in the USA, then no, I feel companies are far less ethical on average today.
—Gary Stafford, Chili

My company is too small to have written programs as we are completely transparent. In these economic times, firms with less than impeccable credentials in all respects seem to have been weeded out by those practicing with honesty and high ethics.
—Daniel Mossien

In general, I believe the Rochester business community is on solid ethical ground. Most business owners and managers are ethical and fair with their employees and their customers. Likewise, the majority of employees want to do a good job and treat the customers well. However, it is important for ethics to remain a focal point for businesses and those who manage and work in them. A strong commitment to ethics is what got us to this point, and strengthening that commitment will keep us moving in the right direction. Congratulations to our past and present Ethics Awards winners. Thank you for being shining examples of the Rochester business community.
—Frank A. Cania, CaniaHR LLC

I find it interesting that you would need an “ethics program” to have a moral compass. Modern society is filled with greed, selfishness, a sense of entitlement and a coarseness in basic human interaction. Bank failures, Ponzi schemes, car company failures and basically our current recession can all be traced to personal ethics (or lack of) and greed. We have become extremely competitive and materialistic. I am not a religious zealot, but following the 10 Commandments and the U.S. Constitution would not be bad basic advice for us all.
—Doug Strang

Lumping all “business” and asking about ethics doesn’t make any more sense than asking whether all people are nice. Most people are nice; some aren’t. Many businesses, including my own, certainly make an effort to do what is right. Obviously some business leaders have different (I’d say worse) ethical standards than most of us. Painting with such a broad brush isn’t useful.
—Steve Hooper, president, Health Economics Group Inc.

The first question in this survey is far too vague. It would be difficult, unfair and over-simplifying to give a single, unexplained letter grade to an entire sector or field of business for honesty and ethics. It is absurd to try to grade "business" as a whole with a single, unexplained grade for honesty and ethics.
—Rosalie Mangino-Crandall, Insight Grants Development LLC

When you establish a close working relationship with your customer, there is less opportunity for unethical behavior. The best business relationship is a "win-win" relationship. Government does a reasonable job of consumer protection. But good rules for all consumers are: "Buyer beware" and "Trust, but verify." We need to do things to keep honest men honest.
—Clifford Jacobson, WebHomeUSA.com

The pursuit of profit with little oversight as to how the profit is made leads to unrestrained greed and harms society. I find it ironic that some feel justified in calling for the end of any oversight or regulation of business when we are now seeing in the financial world what happens when no one is watching. It’s like saying that since the police haven’t been doing a good job of enforcing the law let’s get rid of the laws and the police all together.
—Dan Palmer, Rochester

Obviously, it depends on the business. Banking and politics have no ethics, most other business are mostly ethical.
—Joe Fabetes, Rochester

With 48 years in the business world, I have seen a serious decline in ethics. My first employer of nearly 30 years, one of the largest consumer products companies in the world, practiced and expected the highest standards of ethics in every aspect of business: customers, finances, employees and stockholders, to the extent it was difficult to compete in some foreign markets that did not adhere to such standards. While many companies still have high standards, there has been serious decline caused by inane pressure to show dramatic annual improvement even by "cooking the books" if needed, by moral decline in the country and by flagrant lack of political/government ethics that began in the Clinton administration and is continuing.
—Jim Weisbeck Holy Sepulchre Cemetery

It is a mixed bag. Too many business leaders make profit their one and only goal. For too many, ethics is an unwelcome hindrance to achieve the profit goal. The present fight against ethics rules reflects this negative attitude. The present sorry state of the economy is the result of the discarding of basic ethical concepts and good stewardship towards their companies, workers, and customers.
—Ingo H. Leubner, Crystallization Consulting

A scary fact of today’s society is that people lookout for number one, themselves. Case and point GM, Ford were laying off thousands and their C-level execs were still pocketing millions and flying in private jets. While changes were forced it went on far too long. A business world filled of ethics seems to be a fairytale these days.
—Stanley Jenkins, Pittsford

The foundation of ethics is trust. If you do not have trust, what do you have?
—James Frey

As unenlightened as this may sound, business ethics are suffering from the same moral failings as our society. This nation was founded on Judeo/Christian principles and acknowledging God has prospered. We have since determined that we should have freedom FROM religion over freedom of religion. The result of this is moral relativism instead of absolute truth and morality as in the 10 Commandments. What else, then, are we to expect?
—Rustin Bennett, IBEW Local Union 86

These are loaded questions. For example, Xerox Corp. won an ethics award, but did it include all operations? I don’t think so. I’m sure the Xerox application for ethics and the survey conducted by Ethisphere (RBJ, April 13, 2009) was worthy and thorough. But how can Xerox be ethical and true to its employees, customers, and retirees when it segments its ethical conduct? It did just that when it canceled retiree benefits. So to induce ethical behavior from a specific company (Xerox) and generalize this to all firms may be improper? I do not think so. All companies have dysfunctional behaviors, and this is also for unethical behaviors. As long as we quietly permit these behaviors, we will continue to see erosion of goodness in our society.
—Dennis Kiriazides, Xerox retiree


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