Tuesday, October 11, 2005 | There will always be questions about right and wrong, about cause and blame, and about culpability. That’s why we have laws. That’s why we have a legal system of courts, lawyers, judges, and juries to sort out those questions and to mete out consequences. It’s the way we do things in America. It’s a big part of our culture.

Should San Diego-based Titan have paid money to get contracts in foreign countries? Should companies who do business in the Middle East pay middle men to extract lucrative contracts with oil-rich countries where “that’s just the way they do business?” What about the Foreign Country Fair Practices Act? Does it place American companies at a disadvantage?

There will never be a question about whether we should be examining issues of right and wrong. That, too, is part of our culture, one of our inalienable rights as Americans. It’s nothing new. The question of good and evil has been around since the book of Job in the Old Testament.

What’s right or wrong, however, is now a global issue. It’s a global issue not only in politics, where governments have always tried to influence other cultures or impose their will on other nations, it’s a global issue for businesses.

Largely due to rapid advances in technology, the world is shrinking. People are not adapting as quickly. Alvin Toffler pointed out 35 years ago in Future Shock that technology change grows at a geometric rate while social change only advances at an arithmetic rate. Whether humans can ever adapt sufficiently to keep up with technological change is an interesting question for debate. An extension of that debate could be: Does technology simply widen the gap between the “have” and the “have not” nations-the First and Third Worlds? Depending on the answer, another question arises: Is technology good or bad for equal opportunity? That’s a debate for another time; the truth is that technology has shrunk the world.

Now that the world has become smaller, how should we behave internationally? Is it okay to pay bribes to win contracts in foreign countries where the cultural norms, and possibly the laws, are different from ours?

I believe it is question of values. Values are those principles that one believes in and that govern human behavior. (Note it’s not what one says that determines one’s values, it’s what one does. Watch what people do, not what they claim, and you will learn their nature and character.) So it all boils down to values, those principles that govern our decisions and our actions.

Back to the issue of right and wrong. Is it appropriate (right) to follow the adage “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” or should you follow your own moral compass wherever you are? Or, more pragmatically, do you follow the laws, cultural mores, and values of the country in which you are doing business or the laws of the country where your company is domiciled?

The laws may be clear, but the answer to the question is not so clear. It’s certainly clear that there are consequences if you are caught breaking the law. Titan is a good example. However, the issue of fairness is not so clear. Is it fair to hamstring American companies with laws that make it more difficult for American companies to compete? Well, it depends. Are fairness and/or free competition values that hold dear? Do we want our American business culture to reflect these values and guide our actions – especially in the international community? If so, fairness and free competition are values that may be in conflict.

We are back to the original question. What is right and what is wrong? At this point in history, it seems that it depends on your point of view. The point of view of a CEO trying to keep shareholders happy may differ from the point of view of the foreign company or government that needs technology or expertise from beyond its borders. The U.S. government may reflect a third point of view.

Dr. Joyce Brothers wrote in a recent edition of Parade Magazine about how morals and values and, therefore, culture change over time in America. Is it the will of the people at any moment in history that determine what is acceptable behavior? This debate about right and wrong (good and evil) will continue, to be sure.

What’s my point of all of this? I have two. First, I believe this question of what is right or wrong in business is a question of values. Our values provide the template for governing our actions. I believe further that our personal values reflect who we are and what we do in the business setting. If the values and culture of the company you’re in are out of sync with your personal values, you will be conflicted. However, if you choose a company because it reflects a set of values that are close to your own, you will not have to engage in the internal debate of right and wrong.

When a values-driven company is aligned based on a clear set of values shared by the people who work there, conflicts are fewer, communication is better, employees are more satisfied, productivity increases, turnover is low. All of these metrics lead to bottom-line success.

Second, the debate over how to behave in a shrinking global economy is going to continue for as long as we have cultures with conflicting values. Until we have a set of global values, a set of principles that are universally accepted and acted upon by everyone engaged in international commerce, the issue of what is right or wrong is not going to go away.

We may not solve this problem soon, or ever. Cultures will continue to evolve. We can only hope they will evolve toward a universal set of values that will increase harmony, lessen conflict, and put international business on a level playing field. But that reflects a value of mine, doesn’t it?

Kenneth Majer, PhD, is the author of “Values-Based Leadership” and his newest book, “Values in Action!” He is a speaker and consultant on the strategic alignment of culture based on values. He is also a Chair of TEC International, a worldwide member organization of CEOs and business leaders, and he is an advisor to the Business School at the University of San Diego.

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