Integrity's Place in a Country Where Winning Is Everything
Sure, you might say. We try to live by the Golden Rule when it comes to our personal relationships. But when it comes to business, to professional achievement, the Golden Rule oftentimes morphs into something more mercenary: "Beat the competition at any cost; they'd do the same to you." In this country, competition and winning are our great traditions. Winning, however, has come to be measured solely as having more—and nine times out of ten, we're talking about money. Money is one of the most objective, unambiguous measuring sticks we have for success. And as an entrepreneur, I'm aware of the fact that, whatever else its aims, a company is ultimately in business to make money. It has to be, not only to grow, but merely to survive.
So, does integrity have a place in today's business environment? After all, during the roaring nineties no one complained about aggressive companies; a rising tide lifts all boats, so we were content not to ask how their phenomenal "growth" was being achieved. Recalling the words of Alan Greenspan, our irrational exuberance gave way to infectious greed. It was the eighties all over again, except this time greed's mechanism was the Information Economy and the power of the Internet. We became addicted to money—though some would say we always have been—and one of the hallmarks of addiction is a focus on the immediate payoff, even when the result is longterm disaster.
However, while greed may seem to have tainted the quintessential American values of competition and winning, integrity can bring them back into the light. Sandy Costa, now in private law practice, tells a story of integrity in a competitor:
I had a tough negotiation involving a property matter. It was worth millions of dollars. This lawyer was representing a builder, I was representing one of the companies I work for.
Well, one of our assistants hit a wrong button on the fax machine and accidentally faxed this lawyer a crucial document that we had written internally. So I called him and explained the situation. He put the phone down, walked to the fax machine, sat back down, and said, "I am now tearing it up." And I heard him ripping paper.
To this day, there's no question in my mind that he tore that document up. That's because I had dealt with this person long enough and I was absolutely certain of his integrity. This is the type of person you love to deal with, as opposed to the one who would be running down the hall saying, "Guess what I just got!"
At the end of the day, if you're dealing with someone in any relationship that is at some level contentious—and I don't mean that in a pejorative sense—and yet you find him easy to deal with, it's probably because that person has integrity.
Integrity is not incompatible with competition, with seeking to win and earn a profit. Honest competition brings out the best in us, and profits ensure that an organization endures and is able to impact people's lives, be they customers, investors, or employees.
Santo J. Costa, interview by author, March 17, 2003.
Can We Legislate Integrity?
Understandably, the corporate scandals led to an outcry for action. Wrongdoing should not go unpunished. But as a broader issue, can we rely on legislation—or litigation—to restore integrity to business? After all, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act was designed to do just that. Among other provisions, it created a regulatory board to oversee the accounting industry. Auditing firms would no longer be allowed to provide consulting services that create conflicts of interest. Whistle-blowers would receive greater protection, and executives who deliberately defrauded investors would face long prison terms.
While Sarbanes-Oxley was passed to create systems for corporate accountability, it is also an attempt to legislate business ethics. (As noted earlier, the law requires that companies have a formal code of ethics policy for their executive teams.) But again, it raises the question: Aside from protecting us from the real crooks, can we rely on law to stand in for integrity? Or, should we instead make defending integrity the responsibility of us all, regardless of whether we lead a company or are a member of its rank and file?
This question is currently being debated in the academic realm, as colleges and universities are struggling to combat a steady rise in cheating. According to a 1999 survey conducted at twenty-one campuses by Dr. Donald McCabe, founding president of the Center for Academic Integrity, over 75 percent of participating students admitted to some form of cheating. Approximately one-third confessed to cheating on tests, while half admitted to cheating on written assignments. CAI noted that Internet plagiarism is a particular problem: in a 2001 survey, 41 percent of participating students admitted to lifting material from the Internet and using it in papers without proper citation. What's more, 68 percent of students felt this sort of behavior was "not a serious issue."
I received my undergraduate degree from Knox College, a small liberal arts school in Galesburg, Illinois. The college is proud of its "honor system," which was introduced through student initiative in 1951. Under this system, Knox faculty members do not proctor exams; students may take tests in any public space in the building. Cases of alleged academic dishonesty are heard by an "honor board" made up of students and faculty advisors. Penalties may vary, but usually mean an F in the course for a first offense and expulsion for a second offense.
The honor system operates with the understanding that each student "is morally responsible for the integrity of his or her own work." Similarly, students are "morally obligated to take action if a violation is seen." Failure to report cheating to the honor board is not in itself a violation, but students who witness cheating are expected to "handle the situation in ways consistent with their conscience and the integrity of the academic community."
Note the use of the word community. In placing the responsibility for integrity squarely on the shoulders of its students, the college emphasizes the communal nature of education and the importance of trust among those taking part in it. There is guardianship via the honor board and its power to impose penalties, but the overarching message is one of ownership: individual students are accountable for the education they receive. Together, they are accountable for creating the kind of community that supports the highest intellectual standards. If they fall short on this responsibility, other members of the community will take them to task.
Some would claim that honor codes are naive. In fact, many institutions have begun implementing electronic anti-cheating measures as a deterrent. One company, http://Turnitin.com, offers a plagiarism prevention system that compares submitted papers against Internet content. http://Turnitin.com has thousands of high schools and universities as clients; the site boasts that it "presently protects more than 5,000,000 students in over 50 countries." It's an interesting word choice: protects. Granted, the ease of information available on the Internet may confuse the issue of plagiarism for students. However, by its very nature, this kind of policing doesn't reinforce a sense of trust and community as an honor code does. If a mechanism such as http://Turnitin.com is in place to protect students from plagiarism, then it necessarily takes some of the ownership away from them.
Perhaps it's unrealistic to think that communities of students can be expected to take full responsibility for the integrity of their education. However, surveys conducted by CAI among students at forty-eight campuses show that the level of test cheating at institutions with honor codes is generally one-third to one-half lower than that at schools without codes. The level of cheating on written assignments at schools with honor codes is lower by one-fourth to one-third. Furthermore, teachers and students achieve more of a reciprocal trust and respect. CAI offers the following testimony from a student:
This semester a professor excused me from taking a test at the normal time and allowed me to choose the time and date when I could make it up. Mutual trust was built from day one of this semester and has influenced the way I approach the course. I feel an obligation to my teacher to perform to the best of my ability, which I credit to the respect we have for one another in our different roles.
I make the point strongly about the college environment because today's students are the business leaders of tomorrow. What rules they learn about integrity, accountability, and trust are brought with them into the workplace. On the other hand, is it naïve to think that communities of businesspeople, if expected to take full responsibility for the integrity of their workplace, will embrace the opportunity? Is it naïve to think that they can create the same kind of reciprocal trust and respect? Perhaps there is hope that if we embrace our responsibility for contributing to the integrity of our workplaces—if we care enough to figure out what is the right thing to do—then we'll help create workplaces built on trust. Then we'll help create Accountable Organizations.
Center for Academic Integrity, http://www.academicintegrity.org.
Knox College Student Handbook, 2002-2003, 35.
Center for Academic Integrity, http://www.academicintegrity.org.
Center for Academic Integrity, "The Fundamental Values of Academic Integrity" (brochure), October 1999, 6.