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Ethics, inner wellbeing, and Wall Street

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Wall Street has a tainted reputation. Hence, it seems odd there would be interest among seasoned business professionals to hear someone talk about spirituality’s impact on business ethics.

Yet in July, I found myself doing just that in the heart of capitalism. The audience, a group of Rotarians and guests had a natural receptiveness to the message, not surprising considering the Rotary Four Way Test (truth, fairness, goodwill and better friendships, and beneficial to all concerned).

Several comments and questions suggested frustration with corporate America’s ongoing modest commitment to ethics. A few conversations after the talk indicated a concern about a corrosive, check-the-boxes legalism by corporate elites to satisfy auditors rather than understand how to nurture an ethical culture. It reflects an inability to realize personal values are central to ethics.

Anyone who has wrestled with ethics and compliance knows it’s never about a checklist. Of course it is important to review and monitor specific items, ultimately, it’s about getting to know individuals who collectively give life to an organization.

A few observations from attendees inferred some executives at Wall Street powerhouses still don’t make a connection between ethics and smart business, despite fines in some cases exceeding billions of dollars. One concern raised was how to prick the consciences of high level decision makers fueled by greed, not fairness.

Sadly, nothing will jar some, except an indictment and jail time. In other cases, take time to understand an individual’s outlook. In my travels writing and talking about the natural relationship between ethics and inner wellness, there is often genuine interest among seasoned professionals about what seems a peculiar connection.

Even professionals who are jaded, aggressive, and hardnosed dressed in powerhouse suits with the car and McMansion to match, will open up privately about secular spirituality and a sense of self, if a safe, confidential opportunity is offered. All want to succeed and most still want to be grounded and not lose perspective, which requires a safe zone to decompress.

I’ve known successful bankers, doctors, entrepreneurs, real estate developers, elected political party officials, several high level public policy analysts, and someone serving in a state legislature who regularly sought guidance from tarot card readers.

Don’t judge, but be open-minded and ask “Why?” On closer examination there is a need to be connected with something bigger than the mundane and find a deeper meaning in a world where the strong survive, the weak perish, and success is defined in a material, tangible manner.

Studies document once there is financial security, joy and happiness do not increase proportionately with greater wealth or success. Yet greed and materialism is pervasive. There also are studies showing how personal problems are brought into the workplace by every employee including senior executives. No one leaves their personal baggage at the door.

If individuals are nothing more than machines to meet benchmarks and profit margins, they become desensitized to flesh and blood impacts of price points, marketing strategies, interest rates, and subprime mortgages, among other things, because as the cliché goes, “nothing personal, it’s business.”

If there is genuine interest to changing ethical culture, then there must be a new approach. Shift the intellectual paradigm whether in MBA programs or the board room to emphasize ethics as people driven and impacted, not legalistic policies and procedures. Individuals, like senior executives, make decisions shaping what happens in the stream of commerce, thus potentially victimizing the faceless. This begins with personal values drawn from inner wellbeing.

Paul Jesep is author of “Lost Sense of Self & the Ethics Crisis: Learn to Live and Work Ethically”. He does consulting on ethics, compliance and is a corporate chaplain (www.CorporateChaplaincy.biz). He may be reached at PJesep@gmail.com.

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