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The Ethical Vacuum and
Workplace Abuse

by Cedric Johnson, PhD

Workplace abuse does not occur in a vacuum. Nor does it develop suddenly. There is a slow erosion of life-affirming values to the point where abuse in the workplace is viewed as normal. On one of my recent corporate consultations, I was impressed with a plaque in the reception area the company. It set forth a high and noble mission statement of valuing the employee and the customer. On the other side of the security doors the people in the trenches gave me a completely different position. Abuse was frequent and demoralizing. It was an organization that did not practice what it preached.

Do corporations in this country not preach ethics? Not so. Eighty percent of US Companies claim to have a code of ethics. Where then is the breakdown in values to the point that people are abused? The answer is on many fronts. Sometimes it's the corporate-wide gap between belief and practice. In other cases it's one rotten apple that spoils the whole barrel. It takes just one mean manager to demoralize a whole division.

A healthy workplace is much like a good eating plan. A recommended daily allowance of each nutritional component is necessary for health. What is the RDA for a healthy corporation? What values when absent set the stage for abuse? In 1992, the Minnesota Center for Corporate Responsibility set forth values necessary for an ethical corporate environment. I have adapted these, which appear in many forms in other corporate mission statements. The absence of just one sets in motion abuse in the workplace.

1. Respect for Personal Value
I heard a professor from a prominent business school say, "Capitalism is not about caring for people. It's about making money." I thought, "Why does it have to be an either/or dilemma. Can't it be both/and?" An employee at one of my recent consultations told me, "They (the management) treat the physical plant better than they treat us. We are expendable things." The valuing of profits over people fosters abuse. Not that profit in itself is wrong. The words of Henry Ford ring true. He wrote,

"Business must be run for a profit... else it will die. But when anyone tries to run a business solely for profit, then also must the business die."

Business dies when it loses its humanistic touch. The philosopher Martin Buber divided human relationships into two categories, I/Thou, and I/It. Any time abuse occurs, someone is depersonalized. They are reduced to the status a thing, an object, a possession or an It. Sexual harassment is an example of an I/It relationship. The person is viewed as a sex object, subject to the whims of another's power, and as part of the abusers entitled domain. It is an entirely selfish act with no consideration for the person being abused. In contrast, an I/Thou relationship respects human dignity, values dialogue, and recognizes the soulishness of life. It factors in a moral and ethical dimension to its business practice.

A desire to be competitive should not lead to an uncivilized workplace that treats people like things. Finding ways to pay employees less, demanding longer hours, increasing the workload, and fostering insecurity with constant layoff threats is abusive. It works against the company and the employee in the long run because it destroys creativity, discourages risk-taking, and lowers the morale of the workforce. Few workers arrive on the job with a song in their hearts. A recent edition of the Wall Street Journal found that downsizing companies outperform the S&P 500 only slightly during the six months after the news of downsizing. A corporate lean and mean approach becomes a climate of abuse when it results in any devaluing of the person.

2. Truth Telling
The discounting of truth is epidemic in abusive situations. Here truth tellers are not welcome. They are discriminated against and sometimes fired. They are like the protagonist in Henrik Ibsen's An Enemy of the People. He was the medical officer for the town's mineral baths. It was to be a major tourist attraction pumping revenue into the sagging economy of the region. He then discovered that the waters were dangerously polluted. Blowing the whistle cost him ostracism and an income. It threatened the welfare of his family. The poignant words at the end of the play sums up the plight of all who stand for truth in the face of injustice and feel the loneliness. He says:

"You see, the fact is that the strongest man upon the earth is he who stands most alone."

Truth tellers speak from a deeply principled place against life's injustice. They are viewed by the sick system as a nuisance, a threat to profitability, or discredited as overzealous do-gooders. The system continues unchecked and unchallenged by truth. Cover-ups for strategic errors, a conspiracy of silence about unethical business practices, and in the end, the most devastating lie of all, believing they follow the path of truth when they are just plain lying, continue as the rule rather than the exception. Common examples of lies include:

  • "Tell the customer what he wants to hear. All that matters is the sale."
  • "Your job is secure (followed by the person being downsized).
  • "You will get positive results in this research project. We need the grant to be renewed."
  • "That was not sexual harassment. It was just a guy being a guy. Ignore him."

When truth is compromised trust and confidence begins to break down. I know of an investor that makes million dollar deals on the strength of a handshake. He is one of those principled people who take to heart the ancient teacher who said, "Let your yes be yes and your no, no."

3. Fairness
We all want to compete on a level playing field. We all ascribe to equal opportunity regardless of race, sex, religion, or disability. But does this happen often in the real world? The answer is obviously no. And that is despite laws that regulate our behavior. Ask people how they get promoted in a system. They will give the party line of advancement on the basis of competence and tenure. Then speak to those who have been discriminated against by the informal systems of the old boys network or the unseen glass ceiling, and you will get a different story. Why is it that women often have to work twice as hard as men to get the same promotion? Why is it that the ranks of upper management often exclude minorities like non-whites and gays? Abuse in the form of discrimination is hidden but very real. It flies in the face of the myth that all of us are created with equal opportunity. It contradicts the very spirit of our US Constitution. Yet, there are laws that ensure fairness. But they are sometimes difficult to enforce. Fairness may be a myth but it does not have to be an ideal that we cease to pursue. And imagine how loyal and productive people will be to a system that treats them fairly?

4. Respect for the Environment
The Minnesota Corporate Ethics code says of respect for the environment, "We understand this to mean that business activities should promote sustainable development and prevent environmental degradation and waste of resources." Unfortunately this seems to be a minority position. If the choice is between profitable development and environmental protection, it's the dollar that wins out eventually. The sad thing about such shortsightedness is that the very environment that sustains profitability becomes unlivable or at the least very unhealthy. For years, industry rejected pollution controls. It was claimed that it cost too much. How do they factor out the destruction of eco-systems and health hazards? The abuse of the environment is the abuse of humankind.

The Reversal of the Abuse
Historically we have needed laws to regulate human greed and exploitation. That is because we often lack the ability to self-regulate. The Dalai Lama was once reported to have said,

"Love one another, and if you can't, at least don't hurt others."

Abuse is the ultimate expression of a lack of self-love and respect. It is the denial of our interdependence. The poet John Donne said,

"No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main."

A lack of stewardship to each other and the environment in the corporate world, ironically, does not make good business sense. Lopping hundreds off the workforce through downsizing may boost the short-term share value of the company stock. It also may seem to make good sense for a healthy corporate merger. But in the long run it destroys morale, loyalty, and innovation. And that is devastating to the profit margin. Doing good and doing well is a proven way to ensure ongoing growth and profitability in a competitive market. A business cannot hold to immoral practices and expect to keep the confidence of its customers. For employees, fear and insecurity will not drive people to work harder. It will just make the good people look elsewhere for a corporate climate that reflects their values and meets their deepest spiritual needs. The theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said it well when he wrote,

"Love is the final or highest possibility in man's relationship to man."

Living love is not easy. It fights the undercurrent of the ego with all its self- centered greed. And since most of us struggle to be middling good anyway, love is always a journey rather than a destination. But without it we all die. To some it may seem like a very soft idea that smacks of moral idealism. It seems to have little to do with the real world of corporate development. But it does. To live ethically is to live lovingly. And to conduct one's personal and corporate life with love is to know the experience of ultimate success, living significantly. And the statistics are starting to demonstrate that ethical and loving companies are in the black and not the red.


Dr. Cedric Johnson is a professor at the University of Phoenix, author of four books on spirituality and emotional health, and has been a psychologist in private and hospital practice for two decades. Leader of the popular Doing What You Love and Success Without Ulcers Seminar series, he has served as a success coach for corporate executives and leaders in the entertainment industry, and has been a radio talk-show host for 12 years. For information call Dr. Johnson at 707-642-8043 or email: cofocus@concentric.net

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