Ethics In Business
My background is that of a businessperson and an educator, and I want to address
the question of ethical behavior from the practical educational perspective:
What are the points that we have to consider in making ethical decisions in
our lives? We can call these points “self-leadership criteria.”
They are the considerations that we have to hold dear and in the forefront of
our thought as we consider the ethical issues that challenge us.
Halakhah is the minimum threshold for an individual’s behavior.
This is self-leadership criterion number one. That is, halakhic requirements
are not things to be strived towards; they are things to be built from. They
describe the minimum requirements for interaction with those around us.
Acting lifinim mi-shurat ha-din (going beyond the minimum requirement)
is the goal we must pursue. We do not strive for the bare-bones minimum. We
strive to look at what halakhah depicts for us and then work from
A practical derivative of this is the important tautology that “Stealing
is stealing, period!” In our day, as we become more clever, more
intelligent, and more articulate, we find interesting ways to rationalize things.
We find ways to argue that if we take money from the government, we must in
fact be entitled to it. I have heard time and again people say, “Look,
I pay taxes that support public school education, but because my children do
not go to public school, I also pay tuition for private school. In fact, I’m
being doubly taxed and that is not fair. Therefore, I can take what I want to
take from the government, and it is not stealing.” That is false: Stealing
is stealing, period! If you believe that you’re being doubly taxed,
fight and vote and work to change it. Until that change happens, you have a
responsibility to live within the legal system.
I’ve heard people say time and again that stealing from an insurance
company is not improper. “I had a loss of X dollars and I’ll take
that loss and I’ll multiply it by two or three times. In fact, I’ve
been paying insurance premiums for twenty-five years and I’ve never gotten
anything back, and it is a multi-billion-dollar insurance company. Who knows
the difference anyway? They are going to charge me back in the higher premiums
and get back the money that I get from them. So let me take what I want to take.”
These things go on and on. Supposedly God-fearing businesspeople get the international
phone company’s codes and conduct their international business without
paying for it. This is unacceptable on all levels. Halakhah is the
minimum threshold from which we work, but this behavior is explicitly forbidden
by this halakhic minimum. Quite simply, it is stealing. When we speak today
about ethics, we are not speaking about taking something that is not yours.
That is basic, and we need to go beyond that.
Another key consideration is that there is a basic distinction between
civil law and halakhah. Civil law serves the purpose of creating social
order. It enables us to live together and avoid hurting one another and
to ensure respect for one another’s needs. Halakhic observance,
in contrast, has a broader goal. It, too, mandates social governance and requires
a certain level of behavior among us, but it goes further. Its goal is
to refine and perfect us, to bring us to a level as close to Godliness as possible.
When we relate to ethical considerations from a Jewish perspective and take
account of the demands of halakhah, we are involved in something far
beyond mere social governance. We are dealing with a system through which we
can grow, be refined, and blossom into our true selves. That is self-leadership
criterion number two.
Ethical questions frequently revolve around money. People who have no difficulty
acting ethically when they are not challenged by money find things becoming
more complicated when there is a huge dollar sign hanging over their heads.
Should this company relocate or not? Should I fire this person or not? There
are dollar signs there. Should I look the other way when this executive does
something inappropriate on the Internet? I’ve trained an executive and
there are dollar signs there. We often face ethical challenges when there is
a financial kicker to what’s happening. This brings us to the third principle:
Faith in God is a day-to-day commitment.
Faith is active; it has to be worked and not simply felt or assumed. We all
say we believe in God. We have faith in God. We pray to God. We do countless
ritualistic things that express our commitment to the Almighty. Yet when an
ethical challenge related to money comes up, something often happens to the
faith. Something happens to the belief. Something happens to the confidence.
So one of the criteria I am suggesting for business people to use as a practical
guide in dealing with their daily ethical challenges is the principle that faith
is an active thing. It is something you have to work at. It is something
that has to be kept in mind. It is not passive. It doesn’t sit some place
in the back of your psyche and just sort of hang around. It is not merely felt
or assumed. If that is the reality, if you really are working your faith, if
it is something that is active for you, then those ethical decisions will
be much easier. You will turn away from improper financial incentives because
of your active faith, your real trust in God, your willingness to rely completely
on something beyond the ordinary.
There is another common mind-set. I often hear people say, “Well, he
or she did something nice,” or, “So-and-so did something ethical
or righteous. Wasn’t that great?” But we have a different
perspective on justice and righteousness, on tsedeq. Tsedeq does
not reside in discrete actions. Rather, it is a whole mind-set, a world-view.
I should wake up in the morning and reclaim the perspective that I’m
going to do things right. That’s very different from thinking
simply that I’m going to get along, work through my day, build my business,
and deal with matters as they arise. Tsedeq is a state of
mind. It is how you think. It is where your thoughts start from,
not something that you bump into every so often.
What we are doing is building a structure that will enable us to meet daily
ethical challenges and succeed in dealing with them. The component of
that structure is the notion that, “Halakhah is the basis, the beginning
point, not the end.” A related component is that. “Stealing
is stealing, period!” As clever as we might be in characterizing an
action, stealing is stealing. The next component of the structure is that
there is a distinction between halakhah and civil law, in that the
purpose of halakhah is personal ethical growth, for me to become a better person. There
is a lot more at stake there than simply doing the right thing so that society
may exist. Another principle is that faith in God is a moving, living
thing. It is not a dormant, passive mind-set. It is something
that has to be worked and tested and fought for. We all say we believe
in God; we express it in our words and our prayers. But we don’t
embrace it seriously when we are challenged. We are not frightened. The
truth of the matter is when we are challenged by serious things, we are frightened.
We are not frightened because our faith is not as intense and deep as
it should be.
The next point is that tsedeq is not something that we do only from
time to time. It is the attitude with which we wake up in the morning.
It is what frames every thought and every action, how we begin and end
every day. There is a kabbalistic teaching that as time proceeds, as mankind
develops, more and more of God’s wisdom in the world becomes uncovered.
From that point of view, humanity becomes finer and more civil as
it matures. There is some truth to that, for we live in a much less barbaric
world than ever before. A corollary is that the more we know and understand,
the better we must behave. To put it differently, we have greater responsibility.
For example, in eighteenth-century America, children were regularly beaten,
by parents and teachers alike. Hitting a child was acceptable, regarded
as necessary part of proper child-rearing. Today, in contrast,
we have matured and understand more. We communicate differently.
Child-beating is regarded as improper and perhaps criminal. This suggests
that regarding this question more of God’s wisdom has been unveiled, and
therefore we are required to act differently.
The term “ba`al teshuvah” has crept into our contemporary
lingo. The street version of this term refers to someone with a limited
Jewish background who has recently embraced Judaism. But the classical
definition of ba`al teshuvah is quite different, referring to someone
engaged in continual introspection and self-development. And in order
to meet ethical challenges successfully, one has to be a ba`al teshuvah in
this traditional sense. One must think constantly about one’s own
moral growth. Am I a finer person than I was last year? Am I kinder,
more aware and more sensitive, more considerate? Am I closer to Godliness
in the way I behave and the way I think? A person with this orientation
will find it much easier to meet the ethical challenges that arise. He
or she will ask, “Who am I?” “Where am
I going?” And the answer will be, “I’m a ba’al teshuvah. I
want to reach the highest level possible.” And the introspection
proceeds: “Will this act help fulfill my role as a ba`al teshuvah, a
master of growth and self-development or will it detract from my growth? Is
it going to enhance my efforts or drain my efforts?” That analysis is
yet another part of the structure that enables us to deal with ethical challenges.
There is another kabbalistic teaching that everything a person does affects
that person on a number of levels. Let me touch on four of them. First,
an action creates a new fact on the ground. It touches someone on a practical
level. Beyond that, it has an intellectual effect: When you perform
an act, it shapes how you think. Next, an action or a statement touches
you on a formative or emotional level, affecting how you feel about yourself.
Finally, it affects your destiny—-who you are ultimately and what
you turn into. Here again, consider an ethical challenge: Should I allow this
executive to continue to look at child pornography on his computer when he’s
in my employ? He’s a top executive, very valuable to my company.
What should I do? I know that my actions will affect me on a number
of levels: how I think, how I feel, who I ultimately am. This is the key
principle: You are what you do. Our sages have recognized that,
and we must keep it in mind. I will become that action. My feelings
will be shaped by those words. With that perspective, we will think very
carefully about what we do and what we say.
Let me offer an analogy. If I hold a kaleidoscope and look up at the
light and just move the kaleidoscope around a little bit, what would I see?
Someone might describe it as, “a bracelet of buttons.” If I turn
it slightly what do I see then? Someone might say “a pink brooch,”
or “a cluster of different changing colors.” Turning it again, I
would see different geometric patterns, a dynamic array of changing shapes and
colors, sometimes a chain of flowers, sometimes stones.
Webster defines a kaleidoscope as, “an optical instrument displaying
varying symmetrical colorful patterns in rotation.” In other words,
as you turn the same object, you see things a little differently. The varied
colors and shapes come from the same forms. The contents do not change for no
materials are added or removed. Yet a subtle turn of the kaleidoscope makes
things look very different.
So too with ethics: A subtle tweaking of awareness or sensitivity, a subtle
manipulation of thought, can create an altogether new understanding. The least
new understanding or bit of honesty creates a whole new view of what is
happening. Recalling and applying all of the principles mentioned earlier
is similar to turning the kaleidoscope. Doing so provides a liberating
new awareness that encourages us to deal with the ethical challenges we confront.
It teaches us to ask the important questions: What is the meaning of my
faith in God? Is it active or merely passive and latent? Am I really
a champion of faith in God, or is it something that I use as a convenience?
Is it something that I use only while engaged in interludes of prayer,
or is it an active motivator in my life? Do I have a state of mind of
tsedeq? Do I want to be a righteous person in my essence,
or do I merely act nicely and righteously every so often? Am I growing
as the world around me grows? Do I know that humanity is maturing in a
way that makes us demand more of ourselves? Am I demanding more of myself?
Am I really a ba`al teshuvah? Do I really want to stand on
the uppermost level humanity can attain? Do I want to be the greatest
man or woman that can be? Am I constantly challenging myself? Did
I grow? Did I learn from this act?
These are the criteria. They are the subtle little turns, subtle nuances
that we see in the kaleidoscope that give us an altogether different perspective
on ethics. They are suggested self-leadership criteria that will embolden
you to face the ethical challenges that will invariably confront you.
They are supposed to come at you. It is great that they do, because if
you use the ethical challenges right, you will grow and be refined as a result.
When the ethical challenges come at you, test yourself on the self-leadership
criteria. Where am I? How am I thinking? Am I up to this?
Then ask yourselves three simple groups of questions. First: Who
am I? Who am I to the world around me? What does it have to do with
my decision? Am I the leader of a family? That demands a certain
responsibility. Am I the leader of a community? Am I a rabbi or
someone looked up to? Am I a business leader? That is a real question.
I am judged by who I am. Second: Where am I? Have I fulfilled
a mitsvah bein adam le-atsmo, a responsibility that I have toward myself?
Where am I in terms of my self-development? Is this decision going
to help strengthen me and move me forward or will it do the opposite? Third:
What will society think? Have I acted in a way that will be properly understood?
We are responsible for how people understand our actions. Ethics are not
absolute. They are interpreted. They are dynamic. They move.
They develop and evolve. Our responsibility to ourselves is to
arm ourselves with as much self-leadership strength as we possibly can so that
when these issues come at us, we confront them and grow through them.
Let me conclude with examples of just such a challenge. A number of
years ago, our company was going through a difficult period. We had flood damage
in our warehouse. When there is flood damage in a building of that size
the fire department is called immediately, and when the fire department is called
insurance adjusters are automatically contacted and on the case. Our
loss was relatively small—in the tens of thousands of dollars. From
the day of the fire, I was inundated with phone calls from insurance adjusters.
The gist of their calls was, “Listen, Ricky, your loss was twenty-five
thousand dollars. I can get you seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars.
You’ve been paying premiums for sixty some-odd years. You’ve
never had a substantial loss. By the way, they’ll get the money
back through you in the future premium rates anyway. So what do you say?”
And when would God choose to test us with this challenge? Just when we
were going through a difficult business period! So for days I kept getting
the calls. I kept saying that we weren’t interested and that we would
file a claim limited to the extent of our damage. Finally, the most persistent
insurance adjuster told me to take the beanie off my head and start acting like
a businessman. That was our final communication. So I have to tell
you, we all have had our ethical challenges. We succeed in some; we fail in
others. This one was particularly difficult, because of all its circumstances.
Here is another example: I had a loss at my home. I filed for
exactly what my loss was. The insurance company had their way of discounting
everything, so I ended up paying for about half of my actual loss. As
things would happen, a couple of years later we had another flood and there
was another loss. This time I had figured out the formula, so I padded
the loss and filed for the padded amount. Lo and behold, they paid me
the whole thing. So here I was with money that didn’t belong to
me. That was a real problem.
I leave it to you to decide how to resolve that one.
Ricky Cohen is Vice Chairman of Conway Stores, and chairman of CohenLierman CourageousLearning,
an educational company teaching personal excellence to corporations, educational
institutions and government. He is a board member of several philanthropic organizations.