Breaking the Rules in American Business


Has breaking the rules become the norm in American business?

Make ‘em, break ‘em, bend ‘em, ignore them. After all, don’t they say, rules are made to be broken. I don’t think so.

Do we follow all the rules? If not, which ones do we follow and which ones do we ignore and why?  A DUI is different than jaywalking but where does American business draw the line?

I am beginning to think that one of the core principles of American business is the idea: “If I can get away with it, good for me, and if I get caught, well I can bargain a bit, obfuscate for a bit more, then finally eat some humble pie, blame the other guy and at the end of the day, pay a modest financial penalty, and get on about my business.”

Companies don’t really ever admit guilt. What they do is plead “nolo contendere” which is legal speak for what we all say to the judge at the traffic court when he asks if we were speeding.  The big nolo means, “ Well, your honor, yes and no, not exactly, in fact, I plead guilty with an explanation.”

It is the American way, and I think that IT STINKS.

I race a sailboat. Sailboat racing is a Corinthian sport that means you hold yourself to the highest standard of proper behavior. Like golf, there are rules and if you break one of them, you are supposed to “do your turns” or in the case of golf, call a stroke penalty on yourself.  We saw that at this year’s US Open, when Dustin Johnson was denied the title because he “grounded his club in a bunker” which in everyone’s opinion was not really a bunker at all, but a rag tag mess of grass and sand and crap all run together and was more like a garbage waste area than a hazard.  So be it. Golf is a cruel mistress.

As for sailing, I see an increasing disregard for the rules on the racecourse. People foul and just keep going.  Their attitude is see you at the protest room, where you argue and leave your fate to the “he said, she said” whims of fate and other competitors, whose testimony may be influenced by their own improved status on the leader board.

Whatever happened to right and wrong?

Look at the titans of finance, the boys who tried to bankrupt America a couple years ago, in their effort to make a few billion more in profits. Buyer beware became sucker beware, and the game went on for most of the decade, until the chair maker ran out of chairs, and someone cried fire in the crowded room. When everyone headed for the exit, the door was locked. To quote Leo Bloom from The Producers, “No way out.”

But none of them went to jail—no CEO, no hedge fund manager. The only poor dumb sonofabitch who went to jail was Bernie Madoff.

Rules! If no one pays any attention to them, it is as if they do not even exist.

Talking / texting on the cell phone, running the red light, insider trading. Hey, I’m there for you, baby. Just don’t get caught.

It certainly is a sad state of affairs when the accepted practice is to not just bend the rules, but to break them into shreds and hope you can slip through the door before the fire marshall locks it.

As a culture I am arguing for an increased commitment to the concept of ethics and ethical behavior. Rules define a civilization. They matter.

It’s interesting that ethics is now a required course in business schools across the country. Maybe this is too late.  What about starting in kindergarten?

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