August 28, 2009
Holiness in commerce
Experts discuss the basics of business ethics.
In a talk about redefining Jewish business ethics, guest speakers Allan Holender and Mark Wexler delivered similar overarching messages to a 75-person crowd at the most recent Kollel Business Club dinner on Aug. 20.
Wexler is a professor of business ethics at the Segal Graduate School at Simon Fraser University and a business consultant in the private and public sectors, as well as a recipient of several awards for scholarship and teaching. Wexler prefaced his speech by saying he was used to teaching ethics to "market-hardened executives concerned with how ethics will increase profitability."
According to Wexler, Jewish business ethics should entail three things: seeing God as the ultimate source of value, acknowledging the importance of community, and transformation. He said he was presenting these three components as "an aspirational lodestar" that the Jewish business community could follow.
"When I'm talking about Jewish ethics I'm not talking about what all Jews do, I'm talking about what their scripts, their oral tradition, suggest that they ought to do. The very fact that so few do it, of course, is very telling," he said.
Expanding on his first point, Wexler explained that what is good in God's eyes is not always what is good in the eyes of the secular community. Most people, he said, "will call on God after the fact and largely to avoid punishment," threading this theme together with a reminder that "holiness is not separate from commerce."
Summarizing his second point about community in a follow-up question about politically motivated consumer boycotts, Wexler said that communities play a greater role than individuals in ethics in that they are able to hold companies accountable for their ethical decisions through bringing attention to issues. Consumer purchasing power, in and of itself, doesn't have the power to shame, he said.
"Those who act unethically are increasingly going to be publicly shamed. Shame kills reputation. Today the one thing you need is a reputation. It's the opposite of when we were kids. We had this song, 'sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me' ... as an adult it's exactly the opposite. Anyone who besmirches your name has destroyed you and businesses know this," Wexler said.
Transformation, he said, is what you learn in the process of trying to do good. What's necessary in this, he explained, is to acknowledge that "the performance of the act is identical to its outcome." Overall, Wexler's benchmark for Jewish business ethics is honesty, integrity, dialogue and innocence.
Holender, who is a radio host, public speaker, mentor to business professionals and author of Zentrepreneurism: A 21st-Century Guide to the New World of Business, spoke about how Jewish ethics have changed throughout his lifetime. He said his father brought him up in a barter system where people "absolutely trusted each other." Taught to believe that a handshake was as good as a signed contract or one's word, Holender said the understanding was, "If you shook hands with someone, it was a deal and if you broke a contract, it went all over the community. Those days are long since gone, unfortunately," he said.
An unsavory business partnership with another Jew caused Holender to reconsider his foundational belief system about Jews as implicitly trustworthy. "We do tend to trust our own people, but we can't even do that anymore. And if a fellow Jew can't trust a fellow Jew, who can he trust?" asked Holender.
Citing statistics from the Centre for Public Integrity, a nonprofit media agency, Holender said, "We're at the lowest level of trust since the 1930s," and he called for an examination of outdated methods of assessing a potential business partner. He said trusting one's intuition rather than asking someone what they do, or exchanging business cards, is the practice that people should be developing.
By way of a humorous anecdote, Holender presented a hypothetical scenario about someone standing up at the back of a shareholders meeting and interjecting with the question, "What part of what you just told me was a lie?" In asking this question of everyone, Holender said that when someone is transparent about their business record, people should hold that truth in higher esteem than the corporate standard of success or failure.
Wexler supported this point and asserted that business is often conducted by those who are "like a chameleon on a Persian rug," those that Holender described as "towing the corporate line." Both agreed that the salient point is that reestablishing fundamental Jewish ethics with the aim of doing good is paramount.
Jeanie Keogh is a freelance writer living in Vancouver.