3 Distinctives of Christian Business Ethics
March 25, 2014 1 Comment
Business ethics are a hot topic these days. With everything from insider trading to employee theft on the rise, it is no wonder that businesses are beginning to focus on the impact of ethical leadership. But along with this new focus comes a lot of “gray area.” Many times, managers are forced to decide on issues where there are arguments on both sides – a problem that makes ethical decision-making very difficult.
“Business ethics” is often regarded as an oxymoron, in the way that “military intelligence” and “open secret” are considered to be counterintuitive. Given that business has to do with promoting one’s business for profit or self-interest, while ethics concerns serving or caring for others, the term “business ethics” sounds contradictory. For this reason, important questions arise concerning the possibility of business ethics as such: How is business ethics possible? Is there such a thing as business ethics?
Philosophers would try to answer this question through the so-called bottom-line approach (aka someone is ethically good as long as he or she does not break any of the laws of society). How should a Christian, then, respond to the question? Is it good enough for a Christian not to break any laws in the business world? If not, what makes Christian business ethics unique and distinguishable from the general philosophical approach?
First we’ll look at general business ethics, followed by what I think are three important Christian distinctives.
Sally started her consulting business a year ago and has been doing very well. About a month ago, she decided she needed to hire someone to help her since she was getting busier and busier. After interviewing several candidates, she decided to hire the best one of the group, Mary. She called Mary on Monday to tell her she had gotten the job. They both agreed that she would start the following Monday and that Mary could come in and fill out all of the hiring paperwork at that time.
On Tuesday, of the same week, a friend of Sally’s called her to say that she had found the perfect person for Sally. Sally explained that she had already hired someone, but the friend insisted. “Just meet this girl. Who knows, maybe you might want to hire her in the future!” Rather reluctantly, Sally consented. “Alright, if she can come in tomorrow, I’ll meet with her, but that’s all.” “Oh, I’m so glad. I just know you’re going to like her!” Sally’s friend exclaimed.
And Sally did like her. She liked her a lot. Sally had met with Julie on Wednesday morning. She was everything that Sally had been looking for and more. In terms of experience, Julie far surpassed any of the candidates Sally had previously interviewed, including Mary. On top of that, she was willing to bring in clients of her own that would only increase business. All in all, Sally knew this was a win-win situation. But what about Mary? She had already given her word to Mary that she could start work on Monday.
And yet she only had the resources to hire one person at this point. Clearly, the best business decision was to hire Julie. But what about the ethical decision? If her business did poorly or Mary couldn’t provide enough support, the business would suffer. As a result, her family would suffer. Money was already tight, what with two boys in college. And yet she knew Mary also had a family she was supporting. Plus, she had been so enthusiastic about starting to work.
Obviously, Sally had a problem – an ethical problem. Should she hire Mary (whom she’d already given her word) or Julie (who was obviously the best person for the job)? Questions like these touch on our deepest values.
Depending on whom you would ask, you would get strong arguments for both decisions. This is what we mean when we talk about “gray area.” So what is the answer?
Foundational Business Ethics
According to Kenneth Blanchard and Norman Vincent Peale, authors of The Power of Ethical Management, there are three questions you should ask yourself whenever you are faced with an ethical dilemma:
- Is it legal? In other words, will you be violating any criminal laws, civil laws or company policies by engaging in this activity?
- Is it balanced? Is it fair to all parties concerned both in the short-term as well as the long-term? Is it a win-win for those directly and indirectly involved?
- Is it right? Most of us know the difference between right and wrong, but when push comes to shove, how does this decision make you feel about yourself? Are you proud of yourself for making this decision? Would you like others to know you made the decision you did?
Most of the time, when dealing with “gray decisions,” just one of these questions is not enough. But by taking the time to reflect on all three, you will often times find that the answer becomes very clear.
Greg worked with the State Highway Commission. The Commission was working on a plan for a new interstate highway route going through a rural area in his state. This information was to be held in strict confidence until publicly released. During this waiting period, Greg learned that farm land located on the designated corridor was for sale at $200 an acre. After the announcement, Greg knew the land would jump immediately to over $1,000 per acre. His discovery about the land being available was a coincidence. Using the three questions above, should Greg buy the land or not?
General Business Ethics vs Christian Business Ethics
These are two examples of general business ethics scenarios. We could discuss many more scenarios related to time theft, comingling of funds, and planned obsolescence. Regardless of religious affiliation, most businesspeople would agree that the one of the top priorities of any ethical business is to treat customers, employees, and suppliers with dignity. However, I’d like to spend the rest of our time looking at some Christian distinctives when it comes to the business world. Is there a connection between a live and mind that’s been renewed by the gospel (Romans 12:1-2; 2 Corinthians 5:17-20)and the way we conduct ourselves in the workplace?
John MacArthur is a pastor who has had the opportunity to speak to many in leadership at major corporations. His main goal is to show leaders within organizations the connection between their business policies and personal theology. Here’s the progression: policies flow from ethics, ethics flow from philosophy, and philosophy flows from theology ( Theology->Philosophy->Ethics->Policy).
Christians have a theological foundation that is different from that of any other religion (John 14:6). As a result, the way that we approach our vocational calling is unique. Here are three distinctives of Christian business ethics as opposed to general business ethics:
Typically when we talk about ethics, we talk about behavior and there is nothing wrong with that. However, it is entirely possible to be an ethical business person (correct ethics and policy), but to do it for the wrong reason (incorrect theology and philosophy). In other words, the motivation behind the actions is what Christian ethics are most concerned with. Jesus makes this important distinction between actions and motivations in His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 5:17-7:29.
What is our motivation for ethical behavior in the workplace? Primarily it is to “do all for the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31-33; see also Colossians 3:17; Matthew 22:36-38). The secondary motivation is to “love our neighbors” (Matthew 22:39-40). In the workplace, our neighbors include our customers, coworkers, managers, and suppliers. Instead of seeing people as cogs in a machine or as dollar signs, we have to view them as dignified men and women made in the image of God. In fact, if we are to “love our neighbors as ourselves”, we must put ourselves in their shoes: Is this a product I sell to myself? Is this a deal I wouldn’t feel slighted by?
For Christians, all business is fundamentally God’s business. Each of us should be more concerned about our faith and commitment to God’s business than to executing our own business plans (this, of course, does not mean that a business owner should not have a business plan). Like the Roman centurion in Luke 7:1-10, every Christian businessperson is a man or woman “under authority” whether they are the CEO or the unpaid intern. It is thus critical for Christian businessmen and businesswomen to monitor themselves by occasionally asking the following question: Under whose authority am I set?
- Money and Resources
When it comes to money, Christians ought to recognize that they earn money by serving others’ needs. As long as we are living in this world in bodily form, no one is exempt from the need to support their physical or mental needs, and business is, in fact, how human activity is used to meet the various needs of humankind. If, however, we believe that money is the purpose of business, there is no space for genuine love or care. Additionally, we have been called to steward the resources we’ve been given (Genesis 1:26-30, 2:15-22; Luke 16:1-13; 1 Peter 4:10-11; Luke 12:13-21; Matthew 6:19-21; Malachi 3:6-10). This includes, but is not limited to money. So when we are on the clock, we should be hard and honest workers (not “sluggards”—Proverbs 6:6-11) that make the best use of our time, talents, and money to glorify God and serve others.
To close, we’ll look at the Old Testament example of Daniel (Daniel 1). Daniel faced hard ethical questions at his work. Daniel and others were taken captive by Nebuchadnezzar from religious Jerusalem to secular Babylon. Because of his fine appearance and abilities, Daniel, along with others, was selected for training to work in the king’s court. Daniel was instructed for three years in the customs and language of the pagan Chaldeans. He was also given the Babylonian name of Belteshazzar.
Daniel attended the pagan schools, learned the language, and received the name the Chaldeans gave him. There was no problem here. However, despite his conformity to much of the Babylonian system, Daniel declined to partake of their royal food and drink. He “drew the line” here because this violated his convictions concerning God’s dietary laws. The food in question was also tainted through ceremonial contact with idols.
At their request, Daniel and his friends were allowed to eat only vegetables and drink water. As a result they were in better health than the other trainees. The supervisors observed this and concluded that these Jewish youths possessed great skill and wisdom.
Daniel faced ethical questions wisely. He willingly embraced some job standards but graciously declined others that violated his conscience and convictions before God. Daniel was fully convinced that he wanted to do God’s will. We have no indication that his commitment to God ever wavered.
- What are some examples of ethical decisions, or issues, in your work?
- Have you ever taken a stand on an ethical issue in your business or where you work? Please describe the situation and what you did about it.
- Is being ethical in business or at work “good for business”? In other words, based on your experience and observations, is ethical behavior rewarded?
Learn It. Love It. Live It.
Bonus: Six Basic Christian Business Minimums (adapted from Business by the Book by Larry Burkett)
- Reflect Christ in Your Business Practices
- Be Accountable
- Provide a Quality Product at a Fair Price
- Honor Your Creditors
- Treat Your Employees Fairly
- Treat Your Customers Fairly