Wealth Shift: The Decline of Ethics in America
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A Practical Application of the Theory of Ethical Influence – My Father’s Story

I’m sure we all have stories meant to inspire us to at least try to live up to the ethical standards set by the people we knew who lived during the social climate of the Great Depression, World War II, and the Reconstruction Years. As a child I would listen to my father talk about his father, who was the manager of a small Montgomery Ward’s store in Creston, Iowa, during the midst of the Great Depression. Ever thankful for the fact that he even had a job and a steady paycheck at a time when so many others did not, my grandfather worked hard to make sure that store was a profitable one. Every worker and every worker’s family understood that it was up to them to keep the store afloat, and they worked long hours as a team to do so. On Christmas Eve every year of my father’s childhood, he remembers the whole family delivering last-minute orders to customers who lived on outlying farms. Rather than resentful, my father’s memories of those times were good ones. He remembered putting together bicycles and sleds at midnight with his father by his side, and then delivering them by moonlight through snowstorms and snowdrifts to appreciative customers. They saw themselves as Santa and Elf, as well as customer loyalty emissaries for Montgomery Ward’s. The climate of the Great Depression made them willing to work hard, but their ethics inspired their positive attitudes towards the work.

When he grew up, my father became a C.P.A. He worked for Deloitte Haskins + Sells, one of the largest C.P.A. firms in the world. Like his father before him, he, too, worked long hours for the benefit of a firm in which he hoped someday to be made a partner. Most nights after the traditional sit-down supper with the family, he would “get back to it” at home in his study behind a great big desk. The desk was a child’s creative dream - filled with paper and pens and staplers and scotch tape.

Who could resist? Using my father’s office supplies, my crayons and I made the most beautiful work of art to show him when he got home from work one night. Of course, my father was very proud of the art I had made, and we hung it in a place of honor on the refrigerator. But then he took me into his office and asked me which drawer I had gotten my supplies from. I opened the top drawer on the right side of the desk. He then opened the top drawer on the left. I hadn’t noticed it before, but the contents of the drawer on the left and the drawer on the right were identical in every way. He told me that he loved me, and he loved my art, but that under no circumstances was I ever to use anything from the drawer on the right again, because those office supplies didn’t belong to us, they belonged to the firm, and were there for him to use when he worked at home. He made me repeat it to make sure I understood – “The drawer on the left belongs to us, the drawer on the right belongs to the company.”

There is no question that, by today’s standards, my father’s ethics were downright puritanical. Some might even say ridiculous. In comparison, a 2005 survey by Vault.com, a career information firm in Manhattan, indicates that 60% of office workers admit to helping themselves to a “five-finger-discount” from the office. The survey was humorously specific as to who takes what:

Percentage of Respondents Take These Items
60% pens and pencils
40% post it notes
32% envelopes
28% notepads
27% paper
26% paperclips
24% highlighters
3% office equipment and furniture

Given the statistics above and my own career observations of workplace behavior, even I have had to ask myself, “Was my father just a truly odd duck, or was there something different about the times in which he lived, the climate, if you will, that made strictly ethical conduct more common back then?”

Certainly my father grew up with plenty of deterrents to unethical behavior during a time when punishments far outweighed the crimes. Raised during the aftermath of the Great Depression, he learned early on that jobs didn’t grow on trees. In the 30’s and 40’s, you would have preferred to stand in a bread line than pocket a fiver on the off-chance of not getting caught.

Yet, for my father and grandfather, the mental gymnastics that somehow resulted in consistently ethical behavior were not just economically motivated. Yes, the climate was conducive to ethical behavior because they didn’t want to be out of a job at that particular time in history, but they also had very strong internal compasses that found true north time and time again during the course of their personal experiences. Rights and wrongs were absolute. Their ethical worlds were completely black and white – they didn’t deal in shades of gray. They didn’t just act ethically when the mood struck. They acted ethically all of the time. They were convinced to the core of their beings that behaving unethically simply wasn’t worth the long-term psychological cost, no matter how great the short-term monetary reward might be. Neither of them thought long before making decisions that involved questions of right and wrong. When ethical dilemmas came up, they were dealt with in the blink of the eye, because the answer was simply “No”. As a consequence, I never saw my father fail to look someone directly in the eye, never heard him try to rationalize his behavior to someone else, and never knew him to lose a moment’s sleep over getting caught with his hand in someone else’s cookie jar.

For my father, the climate was conducive and his personal upbringing was solid. But what about his workplace rewards and punishments and the effect the behavior of others had on him? What, if any, impact did the actions of less ethical people have on my father’s ethical attitude?

In point of fact, life is not always fair and my father was disappointed from time to time. But, over the long run, most of his observations and interactions with others only served to reinforce his strong ideals. What came around tended to eventually go around, and he was a patient man. Certainly, not everyone in business was as ethical as he, and sometimes he was punished when he should have been rewarded. One occasion that I remember him being crushed by at the time, was when he was removed from an engagement and passed over for promotion in the short run because he refused to issue a clean opinion on one of the firm’s major clients. Two years later the firm lived to regret not listening to him when the client went bankrupt. When that happened and everybody remembered that my father had sacrificed his own career goals to warn them, his stock went up in their eyes. Needless to say, he was promoted to Partner within a year.

By staying true to his own set of values and not someone else’s, my father was soon further promoted to Partner in Charge of the San Antonio office. While running that office, he discovered that his personal secretary and her husband had cooked up a scam to bilk the company out of money by setting up duplicate orders for office supplies and pocketing the money on the duplicate orders. While many bosses would have fired their secretary on the spot, my father counseled his, and discovered that her husband had forced her to do it. The final result was that my father stood by his secretary, she left her husband, and my father ended up with the most fiercely loyal secretary you could ever imagine -which just goes to show how well ethical mentorship can work when someone in a position to mentor actually goes to the trouble of doing it.

Ultimately, with patience and the strength of his convictions, my father was promoted to Chief Operating Officer, one of the very highest positions in what had by that time become Deloitte and Touche, in the executive offices in New York City.

The reason I have chosen to tell my father’s story is not only because it is a good illustration of the theory of ethical influences, but also because my father was living proof that a person can conduct an extremely high-powered career and still stick to an ethical path. My father’s life was far from sheltered – over the course of his lifetime he had great responsibility and earned great rewards -yet he still managed to stay true to his beliefs. In retrospect, I can’t help but wonder how many ex-Arthur Andersen partners now wish they had exercised my father’s particular style of ethics while auditing Enron. If they had, Arthur Andersen might still be in existence today.

The best thing I learned from the way my father conducted himself was that he practiced his ethics proactively. Despite the fact that he had a deeply ingrained sense of right and wrong, my father didn’t just rely on his gut reactions or his fear of punishment to get him through the times when he had to make the tough call. He used certain tools to constantly remind himself of the person he most wanted to be.

I will now tell you that the poem at the beginning of this chapter is from my father’s wallet. It was kept there almost 40 years, from the day he cut it out of his college newspaper as a freshman to the day he died from a brain tumor in 1991 at the age of 56. The original poem is yellow with age, tattered from use, and patched with scotch tape. What’s clear from its condition is that he didn’t just read it once and then forget it. He used it as one of his ethical tools – a talisman if you will – a constant reminder that the person he would most have to answer to over the course of his lifetime would always be himself.

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