(May 3, 2004) — About 10 years ago, Plastics News Editor Robert Grace used this space to take political leaders to task for a lack of ethics.
Now it's time for business leaders to take the same medicine.
The targets of the Aug. 29, 1994, column were quite deserving: Benjamin Chavis Jr., then-executive director of the NAACP, who paid $322,400 of the group's funds to settle a sexual discrimination and harassment lawsuit; and Roger Altman, the Clinton administration's former deputy treasury secretary, who had just half-heartedly apologized for lying to the Senate Banking Committee, though he declined to resign. Both Chavis and Altman fought to hang on to their jobs after their deeds were discovered, though in the end, both were forced out.
“Either some of America's leading figures today assume that we who make up the American public are dumb as boards, or that we are so compassionate and forgiving as to make Mother Teresa look like Carlos the Jackal,” Grace wrote.
“As a people, we seem largely to have lost sight of the concept of honor and dignity. When we disgrace ourselves, the tendency is to dig in and fight and tell half-truths, until overwhelming evidence makes us concede to a shred of impropriety. But now that we've been caught, we're really sorry, so there is no need to resign after all.
“I have a problem with this trend. I hope a lot of other people do, too,” he wrote.
As he said then, it was not a typical Plastics News column. But, thanks to human nature, the topic today is just as relevant. Ethical misconduct isn't a trend — it's more like the flu; something that never disappears completely, but periodically flares into an epidemic.
Today, some prominent plastics industry figures are under a shadow. The most recent, in the national headlines last week, is Alfred Teo, owner of film and bag company Sigma Plastics Group. The Securities and Exchange Commission on April 22 filed a civil suit in U.S. District Court accusing Teo of insider trading and other actions that allegedly netted him and several relatives and colleagues more than $23 million in illegal profit.
The allegations aren't related to Sigma, although some plastics industry associates were named in the suit. Rather, this is related to his ownership interest in Minneapolis-based Musicland Stores Corp.
Obviously our presumption is that an accused person is innocent, and it's up to the SEC to prove its case. Still, this is an opportunity to remind everyone to check the moral compass and make sure it's pointing in the right direction.
We live in a society where 17 percent of the public thinks it's OK to cheat a little on their taxes. Where credit card companies think it's OK to charge people more than 20 percent interest on their accounts. Where people think being on a city bus involved in a minor accident is an excuse to make thousands of dollars from phony medical ailments.
Fairness and honesty should be an essential part of all business relationships. Consider this simple test: If you're doing something that you'd be ashamed of if your mother found out, then stop.
As Grace wrote in 1994, North American business leaders need to raise the bar when it comes to practicing ethical behavior and admit that even creating the perception of wrongdoing is unacceptable.
Paraphrasing him: None of us is perfect. But surely we must insist that our leaders — including our business leaders — do better than this.