Ethics really isn't that hard to figure out for most people. There are certainly situations that may require some hard thought, prayerful consideration, or seeking out advice, but for the most part, if you follow the law, try to do what is right, and be honorable in your dealings with people, you will be considered 'ethical.'
And it certainly should be that way for a large company with a board of directors all putting their heads together. And that is why the overwhelming majority of corporations are never faced with ethics violations. There are a few violators that keep showing up again and again and again, however. And the king of all of them is the world's largest retailer, Wal-Mart. Over the past few years, just some of the ethics violations that Wal-Mart has either acknowleged, pleaded guilty to (in case of ethical violations which were also crimes) or otherwise accepted responsibility for include discrimination against female workers, assigning underage workers to do hazardous jobs and work during school hours, intentionally operating at a loss in some locations in order to force local competitors to go out of business, and hiring undocumented aliens in 23 states.
This list does not even include the numerous violations that are under current investigation such as forcing employees to skip their lunch breaks and continue working, or sending out a memo advising managers of ways to can employees who were approaching retirement age so that the company could welch on their retirement benefits. It has also been known for some time that in some locations, Wal-Mart's 'benefits' package for new employees includes a welfare application form (probably an acknowlegement that many people who work at Wal-Mart earn so little that they are still elible for help from the government.)
And it is also no secret that a great deal of the items that you buy on the shelves at Wal-Mart are produced in overseas sweatshops where workers, including children, are exploited for literally pennies per hour.
So according to Fortune Magazine, Wal-Mart is hiring an ethics director to try and clean up its image and (at least according to Wal-Mart) improve its ethics. I hope that this is in fact their goal, and it is not just to improve their P.R. but by now I've been disappointed so often by Wal-Mart that I will have to see results before I will believe them.
NEW YORK (FORTUNE) - Wanted: Corporate executive to serve as a point person on business ethics at the world's largest retailer. Law degree a plus, spotless reputation a must. Some travel required. Candidate must also not mind living in northwest Arkansas.
Does that sound like the ideal job for you? If so, contact the headhunters at Martha Montag Brown & Associates, who are seeking to find Wal-Mart's new director of global ethics.
That Wal-Mart needs to beef up its ethics organization is not too surprising. The Bentonville, Ark. behemoth has been bloodied on several fronts lately -- an $11 billion class-action discrimination lawsuit, employee pay and health benefits, and former vice chairman Tom Coughlin's alleged expense account padding have all provided ample fodder for the retailer's growing chorus of critics.
Most corporations are in fact pretty ethical (I know that is hard for some of my friends on the left to believe, but it is in fact true-- we tend to focus on the unethical ones, and Wal-Mart is a clear #1 in that category). And being ethical, most corporations wouldn't need to worry about having to hire someone from outside to fix their ethics. I just hope that they are serious about this, and that they succeed.
A few months ago, I believe, Dateline NBC did a report on Wal-Mart focusing on its foreign workers, particularly India. It was extremely shocking to know how little these people were paid coupled by the fact that they were made to work through lunch and into the wee hours of the morning even though their laws specifically stated that this illegal. When one of the managers of those sweatshops was asked why they did not give the workers more money or benefits, he simply responded, "You wouldn't have such low prices then for these clothes."
I think part of the reason Wal-Mart gets away with unethical business behavior is due to the American consumer's deep need to "find a bargain". The better the price, the more we will buy. Dateline also interviewed consumers in Wal-Mart, explaining to them what was happening in India, and asked them if they would be willing to pay a few more cents for their items if it meant that the workers there could get a raise. It was literally laughable when one woman said, "Sure, I suppose, but then the prices wouldn't be so good."
It's just an outright shame.
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