The Business of Honesty


The principles of righteousness that dictate behavior in our personal lives should also apply to our behavior in the business world.

In early June 1971 I was completing active military duty in California. My wife, Judy, had just given birth to our first child and was staying with her parents in a neighboring state. We looked forward to gathering members of our respective families at my in-laws’ home to give our son a name and a blessing. My parents would be driving from California while I would be flying on Saturday—the day after I was to be released from the service. Everything was timed so that we could all be present for fast and testimony meeting on Sunday.

A day or two before my expected release date I was notified that necessary paperwork would not be completed on time and that I would need to stay on base until the early part of the following week. Upon hearing the disappointing news, I wondered how our families could carry out the blessing as scheduled. I explained my predicament to military personnel responsible for my discharge, but they were unsympathetic.

Still determined to carry out the blessing as planned, I remembered being told a few weeks earlier about someone who could be bribed to arrange for early discharges. I was tempted to contact him, but paying a bribe so I could hurry off to give a priesthood blessing didn’t sit right with my conscience. I informed family members that we would have to postpone the blessing.

Three weeks later I received a telephone call from a military investigator. I had been named as a potential witness and possible defendant in a military bribery scheme. During our interview the investigator showed me photographs of servicemen suspected of being involved in the bribery scheme. The noncommissioned officer who had informed me of my delayed discharge was among the persons in the photo spread.

How grateful I am that I made the right choice. Had I not done so, my dreams of becoming a special agent with the FBI would never have been realized. And my ability to worthily bless my son would have been jeopardized. I realized then, and have been reminded many times since, that only by being obedient to the principles of righteousness can our “confidence wax strong in the presence of God” (D&C 121:45).

Each year I give an accounting to the bishop of my worthiness to attend the temple. In doing so, I reflect on activities related to my personal and professional dealings with my fellowmen. Today, as an owner of an accounting firm, most of what I do affects the lives of others. I must, therefore, constantly monitor and evaluate my work from a spiritual perspective and make the same self-assessments as others who seek to fulfill their responsibilities as parents, spouses, neighbors, and members of the Church.

Many of the gospel principles that dictate my personal daily behavior apply directly to my conduct in the business world. Disobedience to correct moral principles in a business setting can lead to a loss of the Spirit and to the sort of problems that I, a fraud investigator, investigate. I must evaluate myself not just on how well I am avoiding improper or questionable business behavior but also on how I am avoiding those things that can lead to that behavior.

In investigating business fraud, I have discovered that unethical or fraudulent activity generally requires three ingredients: motive, situational opportunity, and lack of integrity. If only one or two of these ingredients are present, unethical or fraudulent activity cannot occur. This observation reminds me of what I learned about fire as a Boy Scout. Fires occur when fuel, oxygen, and heat are present; fires are extinguished when at least one of those ingredients is eliminated.

Likewise, those who wish to avoid unethical behavior can do so by eliminating one or more of its constituent elements from their lives. Of course, for members of the Church, one of the great blessings of the gospel of Jesus Christ is that heartfelt obedience to its principles steels us against any desire to engage in unethical behavior. Just as evil cannot coexist with good (see Moro. 7:11), temptations to compromise our standards for personal gain are effectively displaced by righteous desires and motives. The tugs of temptation cannot sway us if we are anchored in Christ (see 1 Ne. 15:24; Hel. 5:12). Even so, a review of the factors leading to unethical behavior is helpful, for it helps pinpoint areas of potential vulnerability in our spiritual armor as we seek to more fully “come unto Christ, and be perfected in him” (Moro. 10:32). Being thus forewarned has helped me avoid moral pitfalls in the world of business.

Motive

A motive is an incentive to do something. Motives that precede unethical behavior are often associated with debt, greed, gambling, or drug and alcohol addiction. Whether we are rich or poor or somewhere in between, for the most part we live in an environment that stresses immediate gratification and, consequently, excessive spending. Luxuries are considered by many to be necessities. Desires for an unnecessarily larger home or newer automobile, like desires for an exotic vacation, add to financial pressures and divert attention from more important things.

One of the great risks to business people is the pressure to go along with the unethical behavior that sometimes occurs in the workplace—especially when personal gain is involved. Many find it easy to rationalize away what appear to be small acts of fraud or unethical behavior. They say to themselves: “I’m not responsible for the way things are done around here,” or “I’m just doing what my employer asked me to do,” or “I’ll take advantage of this little financial discrepancy and pay it back when I get ahead.”

For people who are dependent on this month’s paycheck to pay last month’s rent or car payment, the motive to do wrong increases and the resolve to do right is tested.

Situational Opportunity

People sometimes yield to temptation after a situational opportunity clouds their judgment. One man, for example, held a position of trust in which thousands of investors relied on his assertions about the financial stability of a particular company. Had he told the truth about the company’s poor financial health, he would have lost the company as a client. For six years he lied, accepting bribes from the client in exchange for his silence. Eventually, the truth became known, the company collapsed, investors lost hundreds of millions of dollars, and this man went to prison.

Opportunities for unethical behavior exist almost everywhere, making it difficult to avoid every business situation where those involved may find occasion to deal dishonestly or unlawfully. But we can seek to work with those we perceive as being honest and who attempt to succeed by complying with the letter as well as the spirit of the law. And we can have a positive impact on fellow employees by avoiding compromising situations and by letting them know through our actions that we work honestly. Even in situations where the revelation of a fact or mistake might prove damaging or embarrassing, we must be willing to do what is right and accept consequences. By doing so, we generate loyalty and trust.

Lack of Integrity

Lack of integrity often manifests itself as rationalization. The most common rationalization for questionable business behavior is “That’s just business.” In other words, questionable business practices must be okay as long as they are commonplace or viewed as infractions of no real consequence (see 2 Ne. 28:8; D&C 10:25–26).

President Spencer W. Kimball defined integrity as “a quality of being complete … and unimpaired [in] purity and moral soundness.” He went on to say: “Practically all dishonesty owes its existence and growth to this inward distortion we call self-justification. It is the first, the worst, and most insidious and damaging form of cheating—to cheat oneself” (in Conference Report, Mexico and Central America Area Conference 1972, 27).

The gospel teaches us what type of people we should be—on Sunday as well as during the business week. “We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men” (A of F 1:13).

President Howard W. Hunter said: “Religion can be part of our daily work, our business, our buying and selling, building, transportation, manufacturing, our trade or profession, or of anything we do. We can serve God by honesty and fair dealing in our business transactions in the same way we do in Sunday worship. The true principles of Christianity cannot be separate and apart from business and our everyday affairs” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1961, 108).

Striving for Excellence

I suspect the day never arrives in our careers when our wisdom and experience allow us to always make quick and appropriate decisions. We all make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes are associated with not having all the facts; sometimes they occur as a result of bad judgment. We need to be willing to admit our errors and learn from them.

When we discover that we have erred, it is our responsibility to rectify our error and correct our future course. We can view this process of self-scrutiny as letting the light of day shine on what we do. Paul wrote:

“The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armour of light.

“Let us walk honestly, as in the day” (Rom. 13:12–13).

As members of the Church we have been taught to seek excellence in all aspects of our lives—with our highest priorities given to our relationship with our Father in Heaven and our families. Latter-day Saints have a significant responsibility to strive for excellence in the workplace and in their communities. When we are placed in positions of responsibility, we do a disservice to ourselves and to our associates if we are unwilling to devote sufficient effort to the tasks at hand.

Excellence in business is often measured monetarily—in terms of profits, net worth, number of clients or patrons, stock values, and so on. But financial criteria fail to measure excellence in real, human terms. As I consider examples of excellence, I think of the sincere efforts of an aunt whose acts were never celebrated in the media or recognized in any special way.

When I was young my aunt and uncle lived a mile from us, and we made so many visits that we became familiar with their neighbors. One neighbor was a reclusive woman who had lost her husband. We children sometimes witnessed her engage in peculiar behavior, which provided us with opportunities to make fun.

But seeing that she had neither friends nor family, my aunt made frequent visits to her neighbor, taking food to her, engaging her in conversation, and rendering comfort to her. When this neighbor died, only three people attended her funeral: my mother, my uncle, and my aunt. In this as in many other instances, my aunt gave her best in personal and sincere ways. For my aunt, “Mankind was [her] business” (Charles Dickens, “A Christmas Carol,” in Works of Charles Dickens, 543).

Standing for Honesty

We can take courage from the fact that an entire group of people in the Book of Mormon were “distinguished for their zeal towards God, and also towards men; for they were perfectly honest and upright in all things; and they were firm in the faith of Christ, even unto the end” (Alma 27:27; emphasis added).

The Lord expects no less of his people today. As President Joseph Fielding Smith said, “Latter-day Saints, wherever you find them, provided they are true to their name, their calling, and their understanding of the gospel, are people who stand for truth, honor, virtue, purity of life, honesty in business and in religion” (in Conference Report, Oct. 1968, 122).

We are to strive for success in business, but not at the cost of compromising what we know to be fair, open, and honest. As we seek to remain faithful to the principles of the gospel—focusing on eliminating unrighteous motives, situational opportunities, and unethical behavior—we know that the Spirit will guide us and that we will be able to say to our bishops, with confidence, that we are worthy to enter the temple because we deal honestly with our fellowmen.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Steve Kropp

Alan V. Funk serves in the bishopric of the Mueller Park 10th Ward, Bountiful Utah Mueller Park Stake.