CEO = Corporate ethics omitted

Today's topic: "How to Succeed in Business Without Really Lying."

Corporate America has been shaken and stirred recently by one scandal after another. Almost daily, it's revealed that trusted honchos lied about their companies' financial health, then sold off their own stock holdings before the resulting crash. Or, they "cooked the books" to make them more palatable to investors. Or, they "loaned" themselves millions they knew they'd never pay back, then fled through the nearest fire exit.

The Bush administration has pledged -- without audible snickering -- to go after these corporate criminals, and a handful have been arrested. A few crooked CEOs eventually will exchange their pinstripes for a different sort of striped suit, one that complements the surrounding d├ęcor of steel bars and clanging doors.

(We can only hope they don't wind up in so-called "country club" prisons with cable TV and tennis courts. The average American wants corporate wrongdoers locked up in real prisons, preferably in the same cell with Junior, a sweaty 360-pound inmate who likes to dance.)

Whatever the punishment, it's too little too late for those of us who had money in the stock market or in one of the looted pension funds. We've lost our assets, the economy is staggering like a drunk on payday, and our dreams of retirement homes now center around cardboard boxes that once contained major appliances.

These shocking developments have led Americans to lose faith in Big Business and to ask themselves whether "business ethics" has become a contradiction in terms, an oxymoron like "jumbo shrimp" or "holy war."

Now, no doubt, we're in for a long period of navel-gazing as pundits, politicians and tycoons re-examine the nation's business practices in search of any evidence of ethics. It's an opportunity we shouldn't let slip away.

All of us should take a hard look at our own business ethics. Whether you work for a multinational corporate conglomerate or off your kitchen table, you're given the choice, nearly every day, between cheating and conducting business in an honest fashion.

How to be sure you're on the right road? Examine your own ethical nature with the following quiz:

Question: If given the opportunity, which office supplies would you steal for home use?

A. Pens and pencils.
B. Scotch tape.
C. Oil paintings off the walls.
D. The corporate jet.

Q: You're making change for a customer who gives you too much money. You can correct the error or pocket the difference. How much money would it take for you to choose the dishonest route?

A. Dime.
B. Quarter.
C. Dollar.
D. $400 billion.

Q: What should be the proper slogan for corporate America?

A. "The business of America is business."
B. "The customer is always right."
C. "Great googly-moogly, where'd my 401(k) go?"
D. "Greed is good."

Q. What is your worst vice?

A. Lying.
B. Cheating.
C. Stealing.
D. Making Securities Exchange Commission investigators weep.

Q: Say your company is going under and you're caught cashing in your stock options on the way to the Bahamas with a false identity and a briefcase full of purloined pensions. You should:

A. Claim it was all a misunderstanding and offer to repay the money.
B. Claim you were set up by your competitors.
C. Blame your employees.
D. Blame your accountant.

Q: If a client complains about a service or product, you should:

A. Refund his money.
B. Solve the problem to the client's satisfaction, no matter how much time or expense is involved.
C. Show him the fine print where it says you're liable for nothing, ever.
D. Buy the client's firm and liquidate it.

Scoring: If you answered "A" or "B" to any of the above, there might be hope for you yet, if you clean up your act. If you answered "C," it's too late to change. You might want to "make a killing in real estate" by investing in boxes labeled "Amana."

However, if you answered "D" to all of the above, then you're ready for a job as a chief executive officer in a major international corporation.

The recent arrests have created some new openings at the CEO level, but you'd better hurry. Junior's dance card is getting full.

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