A Good Guide: A Winsome Argument for Virtue in Business

By John Yoest Published on January 4, 2018

“Do to others as you would have them do to you.” — Luke 6:31

“It’s a ‘business lie’ … not a ‘life lie,’” says Alan Arkin’s character in the popular movie The Sunshine Cleaning Company as he justifies a marketing fraud. This is how Hollywood and pop culture view corporate behavior. Public and private conduct can be compartmentalized: Integrity is not fixed.

The public perceives corporations as an opportunistic, evil force. And the public is not always wrong.

High-profile CEO personal crimes make for bad company. Duplicitous managers, padding expense reports, stealing staplers and unwanted sexual advances over less powerful staffers seem to plague the workplace. There seems to be more vice than virtue in any cubicle farm from Hollywood to Manhattan.

Must this be so? Can business and businessmen be virtuous? Brian Engelland says “Yes.” Dr. Engelland, a professor of marketing at The Catholic University of America, has written a handbook, Force for Good: The Catholic Guide to Business Integrity. This readable volume is written for businessmen of all faiths and no faith.

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Honesty is the Best Policy

Engelland explains how business leaders can infuse integrity into his business.

Alan Arkin’s movie line gets the “life lie” vs. “business lie” wrong. The root of integrity is “one” — of behaving in single, predictable, virtuous pattern. Milton Friedman famously lectured that the purpose of a company is to make a profit. But Peter Drucker taught that the purpose of business is to create a customer. Engelland brings both philosophies — the pursuit of profit and the creation of a customer — together. Business transactions are built on good relationships, which results in profit.

Engelland argues that all of our interactions should be virtuous. That is, our business should be “good.” He reminds us that this “good” is the “quality of business, in the sense that what is happening is beneficial to a broader expanse of society, not just the owners.” And this “helps to build brand loyalty and repeat business.”

“Honesty is the best policy,” wrote Cervantes. And this behavior, writes Engelland “helps to build brand loyalty.”

Professor Engelland comes by virtuous practices honestly, at his father’s knee. His dad ran a small heating-ventilation business. A customer once insisted on a whole new furnace — but only a $25 thermocouple was needed. The elder Engelland refused, selling only what was needed to solve the problem. The family business was built on relationships — not transactions. Engelland acted more as a consultant with the client’s best interest at heart, rather than as a profit maximizer.

“Honesty is the best policy,” wrote Cervantes. And this behavior, writes Engelland “helps to build brand loyalty.”

Even the un-churched buyer and seller can benefit from integrity. Engelland reminds us of building trust in relationships. “Trust is the glue that holds capitalism together … is nurtured over time … and reduces the cost of doing business.”

Being a “Force for Good”

Can a businessman of no faith still practice business as a “Force for Good?” Here Engelland points us to shared human values. For example, the ancients developed a theory of impulse control where deal-making was more than a short, one-shot transaction. “Aristotle was the first to develop natural law theory,” writes Engelland, “and he wasn’t particularly religious.” Relationship in a community was a greater benefit than a quick one-sided gain. This prosperity doctrine was “other directed” for the common good.

Businessmen should focus on virtue as a force for good and the (good) numbers will follow. The wrong numbers can be a matter of life and death, as seen in the 1970’s era Ford Pinto.

The gas tanks in the economical subcompact car would explode in a rear end collision. And it could have been avoided. Ford engineers calculated the cost of settling wrongful death lawsuits against the increased cost of fixing the fuel tank system. Since the repair price ($137 million) was nearly triple that of settling lawsuits ($49.5 million), the company never authorized the design change to reduce the risk of harm.

We wonder if these lives could have been spared if just one person had stood up and said, “this is wrong.”

Using this brutal new math, 59 people needlessly burned to death. Ford was the only company to have ever been charged with murder. (Ford was acquitted on procedural grounds of inadmissible evidence).

We wonder if these lives could have been spared if just one person had stood up and said, “This is wrong.” This book might encourage that one staffer in your organization. Be that person. Be that Force for Good.

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