Rules of Business Ethics

Striking a balance "between integrity and sensibility," the U.S. Department of Commerce last week issued a set of business-ethics guidelines that it hopes will restore confidence in the U.S. economy by making it easier for the public to understand what constitutes unethical behavior and for corporations to fulfill their moral and legal obligations. An excerpt of the regulations, including codified exceptions, follows.

Social Responsibility: Companies can have a substantial impact on the lives and well-being of citizens from other nations and should therefore avoid doing business with suppliers or partners who participate in unfair labor practices, including slave labor or child labor, the payment of starvation wages, unsafe work environments, or ethnic, racial, gender, or sexual discrimination. Unless . . .
a) the products manufactured by the supplier/partner are clearly labeled "Made in China."
b) the celebrity endorsing the clothing line has a talk show.
c) the company thoroughly investigates child-labor allegations against the supplier/partner and is assured that "Asians always look younger than they really are."

Investigatory Response: Employees or officers of a company that is under criminal or civil investigation shall not destroy documents or data that could be construed as pertinent to that investigation. Unless . . .
a) they'd like to keep their jobs.
b) they could have sworn the shredder also made copies.
c) they thought they were helping in the fight against terrorism.

Environmental Responsibility: Companies have a moral and legal obligation to protect and preserve the environment and should ensure that their operations, and those of their partners, suppliers, subsidiaries, and licensees, adhere to environmentally safe practices. Unless . . .
a) it costs too much.
b) see a).

Financial Deception: Purposely concealing or misrepresenting a company's financial information, or misappropriating corporate funds for personal gain, is unethical and punishable by law. Unless . . .
a) the artwork bought through such means is really good.
b) the bill for that new shower curtain is a few thousand dollars more than you thought it was going to be.
c) the chief executive's wife wants Jimmy Buffett to perform at her birthday party.

Executive Responsibility: A company's chief executive officer shall be directly and wholly responsible for that company's employees, directors, and actions, including but not limited to financial activities and statements, extracorporate agreements, and product/service claims. Unless . . .
a) the chief executive missed that meeting.
b) the previous chief executive really started it.
c) the chief executive is later elected Vice President of the United States.

Defective or Deceptive Products/Services/Practices: Any company that knowingly produces or provides a defective product or service is in material breach of ethical and legal standards and will suffer appropriate negative consequences. Unless . . .
a) they were just kidding.
b) the company legally changes its name and insists it was that other company that did those things.
c) the offenses are ongoing.

Unfair Trade Practices: Any company that participates in unfair trade, including but not limited to coercing partners, suppliers, or distributors into signing exclusivity agreements, forcing customers or clients to use unwanted company products or services, or underselling in the market in an attempt to starve out weaker competition, shall be guilty of anticompetitive practices. Unless . . .
a) Judge Thomas Penfield Jackson presides at the company's trial.
b) the company is actively involved in worthwhile charities, specifically the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.
c) the company's headquarters are located, say, 13 miles northeast of Seattle.

Board of Directors: A company's board of directors, acting in its fiduciary capacity on behalf of all shareholders, shall be liable for all financial statements emanating from the company. Unless . . .
a) they can prove that they do not know what the company actually does.
b) actually, a) should cover most directors.
c) the company is doing, like, some really weird stuff.

Whistle-blowers: Employees who make allegations of illegality or indiscretion against a company (aka whistle-blowers) are protected by law and must not be harassed or made to suffer economically or psychologically for their actions. Unless . . .
a) by sheer coincidence their department was going to be downsized anyway.
b) they really have what it takes to work the mail room.
c) you discovered their surprisingly poor job-performance review just now.

Regulatory Addenda: 1. In order to facilitate adoption of these policies, and in due consideration of the logistical and psychological burden that these regulations may have, Tuesdays will heretofore be designated "Ethics-Free Days."

2. All of the regulations contained herein shall be considered binding and factual in all respects -- unless the calendar month in which these regulations appear contains a day commonly known as . . .

3. April Fools.

Andrew Marlatt is the author of Economy of Errors: SatireWire Gives Business the Business (Doubleday/Broadway, 2002).

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