We Should Insist on Ethical Behavior

Published August 1, 2004

Judging by the number of headlines and stories in newspapers and on television, unethical behavior by politicians and business leaders is reaching epidemic levels.

Bill Clinton, hawking his new autobiography, tells us he had sex with an intern “because I could.” Michael Moore’s “Farhenheit 9/11,” which apparently broke the record for opening-day receipts for a documentary film, repeatedly attacks the honesty of President George W. Bush and members of his administration. The trials and criminal investigations of figures in the Enron case and Martha Stewart drag on.

In Illinois, a corrupt insurance mogul was just convicted of looting his business to finance an extravagant lifestyle. Our former governor is under indictment and many of his former associates are already in jail. The Republican candidate for U.S. Senate has withdrawn after failing to disclose embarrassing revelations made during divorce proceedings … and on his way off the stage he implied his Democratic counterpart is hiding secrets of his own.

It’s easy to get disheartened when our leaders choose to do the wrong thing. It’s even more disheartening when many people are willing to overlook truly egregious conduct, such as a President lying to the American public.

Since so many prominent leaders have succumbed to temptation and violated the trust of others, why should we hold ourselves to a higher standard? Are we simply naive for expecting others to behave ethically? Are we missing out on the rewards of lying, cheating, and stealing?

I believe the answer to the last two questions is no. The answer to the first follows.

Many, many people in positions of authority behave ethically even in the face of great temptation to do the wrong thing. Behaving ethically is a matter of personal choice that comes down to this: Should I do the right thing?

Nobody continually makes bad ethical choices without eventually paying a price. Maybe that price is a sudden end to a promising career. Or maybe it’s a badly tarnished legacy to an otherwise fulfilling career.

Chief executives set the moral tone for everyone in their companies. More than 20 years ago I came to work at Golden Rule Insurance Company, then under the leadership of J. Patrick “Pat” Rooney (who has since retired). I initially thought the name “Golden Rule” was a bit corny, maybe even presumptuous. But I quickly learned it was the fundamental moral code of the company. Pat meant the name to guide us in our daily conduct at work, and perhaps away from work as well.

We did more than talk about doing the right thing. For example, Pat steadfastly made the company pay its claims extremely promptly, much faster than the industry norm. If profitability had been our overriding goal, we could have added significantly to the bottom line by holding onto the claims for a few weeks longer. But that would have been inconsistent with our expectation that our customers pay their premiums on time.

Pat was very involved in running the business, but there were times when I had to make business decisions without his advice. In such situations, I reminded myself of his mandate: Always take the moral high ground. Decision-making is simple when one is surrounded by people who are guided by ethical principles.

Maybe I’ve been lucky. My dad never tolerated anything but ethical behavior from himself or from me. I had his influence growing up, and Pat’s influence since. But I do not believe my situation has been much unlike that of the vast majority of people. We all have access to positive as well as negative role models. We seek out one or the other and make a deliberate choice of who to emulate.

Our choices influence the ethical behavior of those around us. We certainly influence members of our families, neighbors, and friends. We can make a difference in young peoples’ lives by joining any number of volunteer organizations. While at work, we powerfully influence the choices of the people around us. If we always do what is right, never cut corners or try to cheat, it is extremely difficult for those around us to do those things.

We don’t have to tolerate bad ethical behavior by CEOs or politicians. They made their choices and should have to live with the consequences, be they legal, economic, or social. When looking for excuses or redemption, they can point the finger of blame in only one direction: At themselves.

Lee Tooman is vice president of government relations for Golden Rule Insurance and a member of the Board of Directors of The Heartland Institute.