Masterclass: Morality in Business

What is it? Suddenly, everybody wants to (re-)discover their moral core. As a reaction to the financial crisis and the near-death experiences of recession, some business leaders have started speaking up about the need to improve ethical standards.

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Last Updated: 31 Aug 2010

Adair Turner of the FSA criticises some bankers for their 'socially useless' activity. Politicians in all parties call for tougher regulation and an end to the bonus culture. But the most moral task facing managers is to try to keep their commercial show on the road. There may have to be a trade-off between what is right and what is necessary.

Where did it come from? There have always been critics who have found capitalism too raw for their taste. During the English Civil War, the Levellers argued for greater equality and less corruption in public life. In the 19th century, Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels developed their critique that changed the course of history. And John Ruskin, the art critic, wrote his treatise Unto This Last, which championed the cause of restraint for the rich and social justice for the poor. But while the protests continued, so did trade, and business empires created enormous wealth around the world - for some.

Where is it going? 'Letting the market decide was the morality of our time,' said Christian activist and former vice-chairman of UBS Ken Costa in November. 'We became identified with the market and lost sight of its real purpose: to enable us to fulfil a duty owed by virtue of a shared humanity to the wider community.' Well, yes. But even as his audience of City dignitaries applauded, how many of them were committing themselves to doing things differently? We can all sign up to greater morality in business, but then there are deals to be done and competitors to be beaten.

- Fad quotient (out of 10): Nine and righteously rising.

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