Does The Golden Rule Apply In Business?

Sep 22nd, 2009 by Steven Tomlinson

1953484772_9287c50eca_bHow is your personal morality connected to your business morality? Do the same ethical frameworks apply in business as apply in friendship or romance? And if not, how do you rationalize the difference?

Many of us think that (and act as if) business has its own set of rules. Commerce is a contact sport where you expect rough play and strategic deception. Others contend that business is all about relationships — connections that aren’t materially different from other human bonds — and that the same standards of integrity apply anytime you’re dealing with people, whether friends or strangers.

It’s a high-stakes question: None of the young people I work with want to be naive or vulnerable in a tough world. Likewise, most have strong consciences and feel squeamish about sacrificing their moral sentiments for the sake of money.

Bart Wilson, in a provocative piece for the Atlantic Business Channel, suggests that the way Americans use the word “fair,” reveals a lot about how we manage this tension between self-interest and compassion in business.

We’re typically referring to a sense of “fair play,” he argues — playing by the rules — as if business were a game with a special set of exemptions from the usual rules governing how we treat each other. Just think how boring football would be if everyone played nice.

But the usage is unique to the English language, Wilson observes. Other languages have words for justice, but not this sense that allows for “proper,” or “in bounds” without reference to broader moral concerns.

It’s worth asking: What are the costs and benefits of being able to think of business as a game where everyone swims at his or her own risk? What do we lose when we expect more of ourselves? What do we gain?

Photo courtesy of Chowdownphoenix

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Posted in Entrepreneurship, Guest Writers, Life of Meaning

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