Recently, the Knights of Columbus commissioned a poll on public attitudes regarding the business ethics of corporate America. The poll, conducted by the Marist College Institute for Public Opinion, found that most Americans — and two-thirds of executives — give corporate America failing grades for honesty and ethics. They also rate the country’s business leadership as poor during this time of economic crisis.
Among the U.S. public, 76 percent believe that corporate America’s moral compass is pointed in the wrong direction. Likewise, a majority of Americans, including two-thirds of executives, gave the financial and investment industries a grade of “D” or “F” in ethical matters.
Asked what they believe to be the primary factors that drive the business decisions of executives, more than 90 percent of Americans — and executives themselves — said that personal career advancement and personal financial gain rank equally high with corporate advantage. Meanwhile, only 31 percent of Americans and 32 percent of executives believe that the “public good” is a strong factor in corporate decisions.
When we released the poll results, I said that the present financial crisis was caused in no small part by greed. The public’s confidence in our financial system, as well as in much of corporate America, will not be restored until executives and companies choose to be guided by a moral compass in their business decisions. I am convinced that only a strong commitment to ethical business practices on the part of executives and the companies they lead can restore this confidence.
Interestingly, three-fourths of Americans and more than nine in ten executives think that a business can be both successful and ethical. Likewise, three-fourths of Americans and 86 percent of executives believe people should have the same ethical standards in business as in their personal lives. However, more than half of executives, and almost three-fourths of Americans, think that most people miss the mark.
To the news media, perhaps one of the survey’s most surprising findings is a consensus that religion provides a good ethical standard for doing business. Nearly two-thirds of Americans believe that religious beliefs should significantly influence executives’ business decisions, and executives are even more likely to agree.
These are all factors that may surprise some in the general public, but not the Knights of Columbus. As every brother Knight knows, the Order has an unwavering commitment to following a moral compass that always points in the same direction, “in season and out of season.”
In his annual letter to Berkshire Hathaway investors, Warren Buffet recently described insurance as “a business of long-term promises, sometimes extending for fifty years or more. This past year has re-taught clients a crucial principle: A promise is no better than the person or institution making it.”
I could not agree more. We have kept our promise to the families of our brother Knights for 127 years. This is a tradition that every member of the Supreme Council is dedicated to preserving. Today, that promise continues to be backed not only by the financial strength of an AAA-rated corporation, but also by an unsurpassed commitment to our moral compass.
In Deus Caritas Est, Pope Benedict XVI wrote, “The Church is God’s family in the world. In this family no one ought to go without the necessities of life” (25). The pope then analyzed this principle from the standpoint of both justice and charity.
We are proud that the Order’s leadership is living out our commitment to charity — the first principle of the Knights. We should be equally ready to emphasize our commitment to justice in terms of our dedication to financial responsibility in our corporate affairs and our leadership as a business enterprise committed to success, ethics and concern for the public good.