Doing Business in the Values Vacuum

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Originally Published for the Scripps Howard News Service

THE Holiday Inn in Colorado Springs has the notice “Certified Breakfast Bar” proudly displayed above the juice and jelly. I understand certifying elevators, accountants and jet engines, but a breakfast bar?

What has happened in America where even my croissants must now be credentialed?

The answer reveals important changes in our culture. There was a time when a man’s word was his bond. Today your every thought must be bonded. From the cynicism of Dilbert to the wariness of Harvey Mackay’s advice on swimming with sharks, everywhere you look in the business world, trust has evaporated.

Business abhors a vacuum just as much as nature does. In 1950 there were 184,000 lawyers; today there are 966,270 “and counting,” according to the American Bar Association — a five-fold increase.

Alienation and litigation have replaced trust and relationships as the ruling order. You can’t sell a cup of coffee in this country today without a warning label attached. Certification, whether it is croissants or CPAs, is a trend emerging as an answer to a growing cultural anomie.

Significantly, our increasing reliance on litigation has paralleled our decreasing consensus on character. Forty years ago we had “In God We Trust” inscribed on our coinage and script. Indeed, President Eisenhower once said: “Our form of government has no sense unless it is founded in a deeply felt religious faith, and I don’t care what it is.”

But today, America is a post-Christian nation, says Chuck Colson, Nixon’s aid and now leader of Prison Fellowship. This is significant because without common moral commitments there is no basis for trust. The biblical injunction, “Thou shall not steal,” provides business a boundary. With its command to “do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” Scripture’s Golden Rule provides a check on unfettered capitalism.

Today in business the Golden Rule is mocked: “He who has the gold rules.” The result? Trust and trust worthiness are not common and are not given and received without extensive “due diligence.”

Nobel laureate Milton Friedman has said that a cultural prerequisite of capitalism is the holding of truthfulness as a common virtue. When you can trust a merchant’s word, says Friedman, “it cut[s] down transaction costs.” Without adherence to common moral principles we must substitute external controls to govern business behavior; efficiency demands a framework of standards and accountability.

The 18th-century atheist philosphe, Voltaire, recognized this problem. Even though he believed Christianity was an “infamy,” he wrote that “I want my attorney, my tailor, my servants, even my wife to believe in God.”

Voltaire wanted this accountability to God not for his vendors’ eternal salvation, but as a Total Quality Management System. “…Then I shall be robbed and cuckolded less often,” he concluded.

Voltaire’s earthly needs were best met when his suppliers had some accountability to a third party. Nevertheless, even though it might be a good idea, I don’t see corporate chaplains becoming a growth industry.

American government, however, is a growth industry. Not surprisingly, legislation is cropping up in this area. Reacting to the vacuum left by the demise of trust, legislators are looking at mandating professional integrity and quality by establishing regulatory parameters for certification. This year, for example, Virginia introduced legislation for “licensing …to promote competent management….” Fortunately, the bill died in committee.

Facing a regulatory solution to the trust vacuum, the private sector must catch up. We need certification, not legislative fiat. The International Standards Organization (or ISO 9000)certification has now expanded beyond product and process to include people for precisely this reason.

Certification provides a benchmark for the two essential moorings of capitalist business: standards and accountability. The French observer Alexis de Tocqueville noted that we Americans were a nation of joiners, of private association. Certification is one such association.

Bonding members of a professional community together in adherence to a common code of ethics and behavior provides both standards and accountability. While the growing certification trend is an important one, we should not be too sanguine about the loss of trust it represents. Certification is not a full replacement for personal integrity and the Judeo-Chnstian world view. It is simply a narrow substitute in the post-Nietzchian age.

Looking to Europe’s example, clearly demonstrates the dangers of giving up on old-fashioned American virtues and relying on the law. Bob Buzzell, professor of international marketing at Harvard and George Mason University, says that, to the detriment of European business life, “What is not forbidden, is mandatory.” Integrity and honor are internal controls upon men and women that external artifice cannot hope to replicate.

There is, however, an important place in public life for recognition of an honorable man. The military provides a model for external certification of internal value.

Napoleon once remarked that men would make great sacrifices, even be killed for a scrap of ribbon. The ribbons were marks of distinction to certify the bravery of the soldier. The military understands the centrality of trust. “I will not lie, cheat or steal, nor tolerate anyone who does” is chiseled in stone prominently in our service academies.

Likewise, those words need to be chiseled into every businessman’s soul. Certification would then recognize that integrity, as battle ribbons recognize courage, and provide us a compass for finding the road back to trust.

John Wesley Yoest Jr. is [the former] vice president of Certified Marketing Services International, a consulting firm in Northern Virginia. [First published in] December 1997

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