Religious belief, corporate leadership, and business ethics



Religious belief, corporate leadership, and business ethics



Description:
Religious Convictions and Ethical Motivation

Several years ago, a recently retired, evangelical Christian corporate chief executive officer left my business school ethics class in near revolt by advocating a response to a hypothetical drug testing policy based on the Biblical prescription to “love thy neighbor.” This businessperson gave an impressive, impromptu recitation of a series of Biblical passages to show why he, as a sincere Christian, should care deeply for his employees and in doing so should implement a drug testing policy almost identical to the one that the students had separately designed after extensive debate about balancing individual privacy concerns against a business’s rights. Despite the CEO’s indistinguishable position, the students, who represented all of the major world religions, deemed him a “bigot” who had “shoved religion down our throats.”

My students are not alone in this type of reaction. Many people believe that religious convictions have no appropriate role in business decision making. Yet, whether or not religious beliefs should play an influential role in the ethics of business is an important question. Is belief-motivated decision making an opportunity for exploitation and discrimination? Or is it a legitimate means of ensuring that business is conducted in ways that take into account the consequences of corporate actions on nonshareholder constituents such as employees, the community, the environment, suppliers, creditors and customers?

Religious Convictions and Ethical Motivation

The field of business ethics has not paid sufficient attention to the questions of why a person would want to be ethical.(1) Much of the business ethics literature assumes people’s interest in being ethical and consequently addresses the appropriate thought experiments to determine moral behavior.(2) Unfortunately, without examining why a person would be interested in being ethical, business ethics is truly academic, particularly since there are limits to justifying ethical behavior in terms of economic profitability. Despite very sound arguments that, under certain circumstances, good ethics is good business ethical decision making at times can be cumbersome and unprofitable.(4) Religious convictions provide some business leaders with a strong motivation for conducting business ethically even when their profit motive might not. A growing body of literature addresses such religious motivation. Laura Nash’s recent book, Believers in Business, describes how evangelical Christians attempt to blend ethics and business, often resulting in exemplary treatment of employees(5) and impressive stewardship and philanthropy.(6) Similarly, Oliver Williams and John Houck,(7) and Joseph Sullivan and Thomas McMahon(8) have documented the work of Catholic businesspersons whose commitment to ethical business behavior is truly outstanding.(9) In addition, businesspeople who are themselves religiously motivated have written books about their philosophies. Tom Chappell,(10) Robert Greenleaf,(11) James Autry,(12) and Steven Covey.(13) Examining the motivations for ethical behavior on an individual level raises ontological and epistemological questions that businesspersons tend to leave unaddressed and which are too complex to be addressed here in any appropriate depth. Yet, they can be addressed in part. In a culture that has diverse ideas about reality and human nature, such ontological and epistemological questions are risky. One problem, exemplified by my students, reactions, is that reliance on religious beliefs can be incendiary and can excite discriminatory responses.(14) To a significant extent, our society has come to distrust religion when applied to public issues. In Nash’s book, for instance, evangelicals find themselves facing cultural norms that mandate that religious talk reveals inauthentic belief. An openly devout leader is burdened by comparisons to sleazy televangelists.(15) Yet his beliefs are so fundamental to his business activities that to not speak of them would be as phony as he is accused of appearing.(16) Moreover, people’s incendiary reactions to expressed religious convictions allow them to overlook the fact that the integration of business and religion can result in good business ethics. Nash notes the commitment of evangelicals to the “Christian concept”(17) of high quality,(18) to investment in the development and training of employees,(19) and to “dignification”(20) (an aspect of love of neighbor). Executive compensation under evangelical leadership is generally limited, with the average differential between lowest and highest paid worker a factor of twenty, compared to the national average of a factor of eighty-five.(21) Participatory work forces and egalitarianism tend to be more prevalent as well.(22) Many evangelically inspired managers have policies that promote diversity and make them less subject to charges of discrimination, although Nash found that equal treatment of women is a “blind spot.”(23)

Given such laudable management, why have evangelical CEOs and other religious business leaders been forced to “secularize” their belief?(24) Nash argues that many of these leaders “disguise” their beliefs(25) because there has been

[A] severe rupture of the traditional task of religion, which was precisely the establishment of an integrated set of reality that could serve as a common universe of meaning for the members of society. The world-building potency of religion is thus restricted to the construction of sub-worlds, of fragmented universes of meaning, the plausibility structure of which in some cases are no longer than the nuclear family.(26)

In a country where religious speech is suspect, should religiously motivated corporate leaders censor themselves? My goal in this article is to examine within a moral and methodological framework the reasons why a CEO like my class speaker should or should not reveal the religious beliefs motivating her or his decisions about specific corporate policy, particularly when those decisions relate to ethical dilemmas. This inquiry implicates not only religious beliefs, but any controversial moral belief, secular or sacred.(27) In fact, given the difficulty of scientifically “proving” any moral position, secular or religious, then any imposition of ethical practices is at least somewhat implicated as well.

As a basis for examining this question, I will deal extensively with the political-religious literature. That literature questions