Ethics in Business — A Contradiction in terms?

showPictureA little over a year ago, I heard on of the most meaningful speeches I’d ever heard; given by Anton Valukas, who, among other things, oversaw the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy.  The Lehman Brothers bankruptcy was one of the tell-tale signs to me at the time that we were in the midst of a major financial disaster in the world.

Just a year and a half before, in March 2007, I saw the problem in its infancy: the Subprime mortgage market.  Working for a company that traded in Mortgage Backed Securities myself, and involved in financial forecasting — seeing companies like Argent Mortgage, Accredited Home Lenders and BNC Mortgage (heh, oddly enough, owned by Lehman) shutting their doors and no longer funding loans — and almost immediately after, declaring bankruptcy, I knew something was going on.  Between the 2 and 3 year Adjustable Rate Mortgages now maturing on many of those products, and other bad qualifications that underwriters and Account Executives pushed on Loan officers, particularly those nascent to the profession and didn’t know any better; I saw first hand the beginnings of the crisis, and where it was heading.

Fast forward to March 17, 2012.  Three and a half years after the largest bankruptcy in human history…  I was listening to the man who oversaw the effective autopsy of Lehman, the signal to myself and the rest of the world that a financial collapse was all but here — and I had a chance to hear his story, in person, for the first time.  It was incredible.

The financial collapse cost me a lot, personally — both in my net worth, and for awhile, my sense of self-worth.  It took me a long time to recover from having to trade my corner office and glass desk for a security officer’s uniform and a Ford Focus with an amber light on the top of it.  Listening, and then getting a chance to talk briefly to, one of my heroes in business and law — a man who, to me, was a man who’s ethics were infallible — was an incredible experience.

“Are ethics in business a contradiction in terms?” I find myself asking a lot.  Everything from Enron to Lehman to the collapse of New Century Financial tested my view on ethics in business.

That’s one reason I’m grateful for my time at the EMU College of Business, and a couple of instructors in particular.  Everything from “Ethos Week” to Ethics classes I’ve taken has given me a renewed sense of optimism in the future of business.  I figure, if all of the money spent on things like Ethos Week, and Ethics classes, and all the things people find inconvenient save us from even ONE financial disaster in some way or another… is it worth it?

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