Jack Abramoff, the corrupt lobbyist turned federal prisoner, then author and now ethics expert, will be giving a lecture on government and personal ethics at The University of Texas at Austin’s business school on May 2. This is not as unusual as it seems. My biggest competitors are felons and disbarred lawyers—they literally step right out of professional disgrace, and sometimes jail, into the lecture circuit. They are draws, and in a field like ethics, which is often prescribed as substitute for barbiturates, this is irresistible to professional development programmers and conference organizers. It also attracts the participants that most need real ethics training, but who seek what these fake ethics presenter usually have to offer: real life-based advice on what you can’t get away with. This lesson has about as much to do with ethics as it does with Parcheesi, but unfortunately, that’s what is generally regarded as practical ethics.
Characters like Abramoff don’t have ethics alarms; they have survival alarms. Business schools, politicians and the media still believe that aiming reforms at those alarms, in the form of tougher rules and enforcement, will make business and government more ethical. Think about it: the cultures will still be unethical; the people in them will be just as unethical, but because proven scofflaws and ethics corrupters like Jack Abramoff will explain where they went wrong, all these people with dead ethics alarms, further deadened by absorbing the wisdom of the most corrupt of a corrupt breed, will stop behaving unethically.
The confusion of being ethical with being pragmatic is widespread in business and elsewhere. This morning, for example, I encountered a web post entitled, “Unprofessional Job Interview Tactics Every Job Hunter Should Avoid In the Interview Room.” It was on website called Knoji, which promotes itself as a website that unites experts to pass along important information about business and other topics. The expert who wrote this article, Daniel Ogbeifun, began his survey of “common unethical interview tactics” by noting that “Such unethical behaviors are uncalled in the interview room; and should be avoided at all cost(s).“ Why should they be avoided?
Well, “Begging for the job” is out because it is “embarrassing.” and won’t work because “no firm wants to employ a beggar.” “Seducing the recruiting officer” is not a good idea, because “there is no guarantee that you will get the job; unless you have to seduce the person who makes the final decision.” “Using bribery” should be avoided, because “you could land the job without offering a bribe,” and “the risk with a bribe offer is that if it doesn’t go your way, you have lost out.” Then, Daniel points out, in his expertise, that there is always the chance you’ll be arrested.
I wonder if he got that last part from Jack Abramoff lecture?
In the entire article about avoiding unethical tactics, there isn’t a hint that the author actually thinks that the tactics are unethical, or understands why they are. He just doesn’t think they will be effective, and that the risks that they might backfire and get the interviewer in trouble are unacceptably high. Now it is true that all indications are that Mr. Ogbeifun is an unqualified boob who has no business representing himself as an expert on business or ethics, but his attitude and orientation is distressingly typical. Not only is this how a large and perhaps decisive component of the business and political environments think about ethics—to the extent they think about ethics at all—it is also the mindset that compliance officers, business school administrators and lawmakers are attempting to reinforce to cure those sector’s ethical deficiencies—by using “teachers” like Jack Abramoff.
“Few have so publicly made the unfortunate conversion from Washington powerhouse to national punching bag,” said Robert Prentice, chair of the Business, Government and Society department at the University of Texas’s McCombs School of Business. “Any reasonably intelligent person — and Jack Abramoff is more than reasonably intelligent — who has traveled that route must have insights to share with the rest of us about how we can avoid making similar mistakes.”
“Mistakes.” Unethical conduct and illegal acts are “mistakes,” because, you see, they were bad risks, and isn’t it all about risk? No, it’s about knowing the difference between right and wrong. As long as unethical conduct is being thought of as a “mistake,” and as long as that is the message being taught in so-called ethics training sessions and seminars, there won’t be any improvement in business and government ethics. Because, you see, to someone like Jack Abramoff, if you break a rule, a law, or an ethical principle and get the results what you want, it’s not a mistake.