A very interesting article in today’s New York Times explores the new fervor among U.S. corporations for ethics standards. Companies are holding their employees to much higher standards of personal and business behavior, the article says, now that so many firms have been hit hard by scandalous personal conduct and incidents of corporate malfeasance.
Rather predictably, the Times article claims that firms are being driven solely by self-interest, “now that boards and chief executives have seen how public scandals can torpedo stock prices, alienate customers and end careers.” Several business analysts are quoted as objecting to what they call a New Puritanism among corporations, which they say is driven by panic and fear.
What is particularly interesting is that neither the author nor anyone quoted in the article suggested that the more rigorous standards for business ethics could have any ties whatever to broader social and cultural trends in the country.
However, it seems absurdly unlikely that there is no connection between the two. I have written in the past about the changes in moral and social standards that occurred in the United States in the half-century after World War II, and I believe that business ethics began to become more relaxed just as other standards did during that period. But whereas the general culture reached a tipping point, where the changes became undeniable, in the 1960s, in the business realm the difference did not become quite so noticeable until the 1980s—as the generation raised during the postwar era began to come to power in the business world.
Just as new, more latitudinarian cultural assumptions filtered into the business world during the half-century after WWII, it appears that the new, more restrictive social and moral standards of our time are starting to have their effect on U.S. businesses now. If the Times article is correct, and the “new puritanism” is merely a response to recent scandals, then we can expect a return to more lax standards of behavior as soon as the heat is off. If I am right and the changes in business ethics are part of a long-term cultural trend, we should expect to see the standards continue to tighten.