In 1988, my employer called all the call center representatives into a conference and plopped down a binder full of known product problems. Each known product problem had an associated ‘mitigation’ step to assist the customer. Some included replacement, while others included replacement and compensation. Still, others included payment. Sounded great, until. Until what? Upon reading the fine print, we could only assist the customer if the customer complained. We could not broadcast any manufacturing problem, discuss any form of compensation, or any customer inquiry outside the office. That meant any customer experiencing a known product failure, but did not complain to the manufacturer, received nothing, no compensation, no mitigation. Those who suffered in silence were swept under the corporate rug.
The visceral and brutal nature of corporate sins often gets “cleaned up” by corporate and religious communities alike. Suffering is downplayed publicly, and individual elements, including any agonizing days our customers endured, were buried by silence and a tsunami of the indescribable pain. As a business, we failed to recognize our horror, the inexplicable level of pain inflicted, and the raw violence performed against our customers’ human psyche. Instead, we went to church, held hands, recited the Lord’s prayer, and asked God to forgive our debts just as we forgive our debtors. Yeah. Sure.
Thirty-five years later, God asked me, why was I so willing to sacrifice my ideals upon the throne of business? I am fascinated by God’s question and of the impossibility of inconsistent, rationalized ethics. What did this absolute obedience and faith of humankind offer that made it entirely permissible to sacrifice customers? By questioning my request for forgiveness, God asked a provocative question, “What good is thy faith?”
Another angle by which to frame this is that God inquired about its aftermath. What did I accomplish? Through a series of acts, I trusted in the invisible plan of now-defunct and unmemorable business leadership. Had I shelved reason and ethics to become ‘employee of the month’ or ‘employee of the year?’ I understand that worse has occurred throughout history and that humanity has endured the wrenching horrors of current and past U.S. leadership. Just as Abraham went to sacrifice Isaac, just as many business colleagues across the county, I sacrificed ethics to obligation.
Truthfully, I have no understanding of why management required such sacrifices thirty-years ago. I failed to ask, and my lack of ‘positional power’ was limited. On the other hand, God gazed into my soul — where I could not see — and knew my secret, even when I couldn’t see it myself. God affirmed I made myself a co-conspirator, either symbolically or with consent: I saw the facts, and I participated in the commitment to secrecy. If I was unwilling to pass judgment on management at the time, then the essential question is, how is my ethical code different today? Should ethics be relative to religious status and hierarchy, or to the extremity of one’s commitment to God?
When does the end justify means? Where is ‘humanity’ in the reward? Should my profound humility somehow replace the patriarchy of God’s original call? More importantly, What does it mean to be God’s chosen? How do I live accordingly?
Like most of my life’s poor decisions, I will never rid of the most sacred ethical failures. I am blessed that forgiveness is offered via faith. Yet, this fact demands that I now follow spirituality and continually evaluate both faith and obligation. Indeed, my footsteps should not be traced, as my example should provide ample pause.
If your first response would be to entertain the notion that I was a madman or criminal, or, more likely, that I was tragically deluded in some false image of God’s call, then what of those harmed? What if I misunderstood the will of God? What might have I lost in translation between divine intent and human implementation?
During the COVID pandemic, we’ve heard politicians weigh the value of human life against economic and stock market viability. We openly discuss hitting the poor the hardest for the sake of chasing profits. Entertaining business without ethics means losing our humanity. We must serve a higher purpose: look after employees, support the community, and strive to make a product that inspires.
God’s questioning taught that each human life is more significant than gross profit. Of course, a business balance sheet is essential, but human beings are created in the image of God. As such, we must reject suggestions to sacrifice ethical discernment. To do otherwise means human lives become nothing more than check marks on a to-do list rather than sacred.