Every Christmas season, we are treated to multiple opportunities to witness the deliberate slander of one of the world’s most famous businessmen – Ebenezer Scrooge. With each showing of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol,” poor Mr. Scrooge must endure this onslaught alone and without the benefit of counsel. As a consequence of this one-sided negative attack, we all join in condemning Scrooge and rejoice in his ultimate transformation without giving due consideration to his laudable qualities.
In the interest of justice and fair play, and in keeping with the Christmas spirit, I offer this defense of Mr. Scrooge and explore the question of whether such “an excellent man of business,” is an “ethical” man of business.
Let’s begin by reviewing the case against Scrooge. It is alleged that he should be looked upon with scorn because:
In response to these allegations I stipulate that prior to embracing the “Christmas spirit” Mr. Scrooge was a miserable, unhappy, unpleasant person. But, far from evidencing unethical business practices, when looked upon in their most favorable light, these alleged “crimes” strongly support Scrooge’s cause. Let’s review together a more “fair minded” recitation of the facts in the order presented above.
Taking these attributes into account, Ebenezer appears to be saintly by comparison to the scoundrels in our modern business world who engage in self dealing, lie to shareholders, avoid paying their fair share of taxes, loot pension funds, rape the environment, cheat, steal or otherwise defraud customers and business owners.
Mr. Dickens leads us to believe that Mr. Scrooge’s transformation, in response to unrelenting harassment by well meaning spirits, will be better for all concerned. But he never really tells us the rest of the story. We never find out what Ebenezer’s new found generosity does to his business over the long term.
What if Mr. Scrooge’s new, more socially-conscious business model leads to bankruptcy and ruin for him, his investors, customers and employees? Would that be a more or less ethical business model than the one he and his former partner Marley successfully followed for many years?
The answer to this question has very real implications for every business professional. It illustrates the reason why being an “ethical” business professional is never as simple as just being a “nice person” in a Christmas fable. Instead, being an ethical business professional demands that we strike principled balances between powerful opposing forces.
Working very hard may be good for the bottom line but wreck havoc on your health and your personal life. Being a good steward of the natural environment is essential for future generations, but is often costly and difficult in a competitive global marketplace where there is an uneven playing field as a consequence of varying national environmental regulations. Being generous to charities may be laudable, but if mismanaged might result in a lessened return for investors. Paying taxes is a civic duty, but it is also your duty to pay only your fair share in accordance with a byzantine tax code. Providing generous benefits to employees is good for them and their families, but, if over done, potentially weakens firm competitiveness and economic viability.
Seeking the “ethical” balance between such competing interests is always hard because there is rarely one right way to do it. The best we can do as business professionals is to conscientiously use of our moral reasoning skills in accordance with the fundamental principles of honesty, fairness, compassion, respect and responsibility to guide us along the way.
I grant you that, prior to encountering his ghostly apparitions, Scrooge did not appear to be striking an optimal balance for himself, his employees or his business. But, the next time you sit to watch A Christmas Carol or pick up the Dickens classic from the bookshelf, perhaps you’ll look more kindly upon brother Scrooge and contemplate how well you are “striking the balance” at your firm.
[Editor’s note: This article was first published in the Rochester Business Journal.]
* – Ebenezer Scrooge image via Slate.com
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Jim spent the first 17 years of his career as a litigator trying both criminal and civil cases before becoming Crompton Corporation’s first Vice President, Business Ethics and Compliance in 2003.
Since then, Jim has served as a compliance officer at Crompton and for four other multinational corporations, as well as Corporate Compliance Director at Sutherland Global Services. Currently he serves as Chief Compliance Officer for Carestream Health.
Mr. Nortz is a frequent guest lecturer at the University of Rochester’s Simon School of Business, RIT’s Saunders School of Business, St. John Fisher College and Nazareth College.
Jim writes the monthly business ethics columns for the Association of Corporate Counsel Docket magazine and the Rochester Business Journal and is a contributing writer for Corporate Compliance Insights and The Business Journals.
Jim served on the Board of Directors for the Ethics and Compliance Officers Association (“ECOA”) for eight years. He currently serves on the Board of the Rochester Area Business Ethics Foundation and is a member of the Rochester chapter of Conscious Capitalism.