The role of ethics and morality in business

I heard James Espey give an wide-ranging and entertaining talk last week. It was unstructured and meandering, and all the better for it: Espey was riffing on the themes in business and management that interested him, and he had a lot to say. I was thinking about this today as I read in the paper about John Thain, formerly of Merrill Lynch:

…Mr Thain spent $1.2m (£865,000) to redecorate his office even as Merrill’s losses were skyrocketing… He signed off on the purchase of an $87,000 rug for his personal conference room, a 19th-century credenza costing $48,000 and a “parchment waste can” worth $1,400, among numerous luxury items. The work totalled $1.2m, including an $800,000 fee for the celebrity designer Michael Smith, who is currently redesigning the White House for the Obama family for just $100,000.

And

What planet does he live on? You might have thought a little restraint would have been called for with Wall Street’s greed-fuelled antics accused of having brought the world economy to its knees. Public anger over the robber barons of banking is already at fever pitch. This was not the time to be flashing your money about.

Espey is a non-exec of Whyte & Mackay, whisky distillers, A.G. Barr, makers of Scotland’s second national drink, and Fullers; he has spent most of his career in drinks’ marketing; and has recently launched the Last Drop, a rare, blended whisky. (Unfortunately, he brought samples of Irn Bru – but not the Last Drop! Still, the Irn Bru hit the mark, too!)

Espey said that he thought the recession had in part been brought about through the corruption of money – a bonus culture brought about by a moral failure that rewarded growth at any cost and saw money as an end in itself. He mourned a society where greed and the desire for possessions had pushed aside all other considerations – and he was worried that we had nothing to fill the gap once the credit tap was turned off.

It isn’t often one hears successful businessmen describing their world in such moral terms.

It was very refreshing; but I worry it is too late.

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