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’ ward 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 the military base until the early part of the following week. Upon hearing the disappointing news, I wondered how we could carry out the blessing as scheduled. I explained my predicament to the personnel responsible for my discharge, but they were unsympathetic.

Still determined to carry out the blessing as planned, I remembered hearing 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 career dreams 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 others. As an owner of an accounting firm that investigates business fraud, I must do the same thing, constantly monitoring and evaluating my work from a spiritual perspective. I must evaluate myself not only on how well I am avoiding improper or questionable business behavior but also on how well I am avoiding those things that can lead to that behavior.

I have discovered that unethical or fraudulent business 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 usually does not 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.


Whether we are rich or poor or somewhere in between, we live in an environment that stresses immediate gratification and, consequently, excessive spending. Luxuries are considered by many to be necessities, leading to financial pressures that divert attention from more important things. In such an environment, it is far too easy for our motives to become corrupted. Motives that precede unethical behavior are often associated with debt, greed, gambling, or drug and alcohol addiction.

One of the great risks to business people is the pressure to go along with unethical behavior 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 bills, the motive to do wrong increases and the resolve to do right is tested.

Situational Opportunity

People sometimes yield to temptation when a situation arises that makes it possible for them to make money easily. The opportunity clouds their ethical 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 working with dishonest people. But always, we must seek to work with those we perceive as being honest. Furthermore, we can have a positive impact on fellow employees by avoiding compromising situations and working 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 are considered 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 every day, seven days a week: “We believe in being honest, true, chaste, benevolent, virtuous, and in doing good to all men” (A of F 1:13).

Striving for Excellence

I suspect the day never arrives when our wisdom and experience allow us to make quick and appropriate decisions every time. We all make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes come because we do not have all the facts; sometimes they occur because of bad judgment. We need to be willing to admit our errors and learn from them.

When we discover we have erred, let us quickly rectify the error. We need to let the light of day shine on what we do. The Apostle 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 with our families. One of our most significant responsibilities is to strive for excellence in our workplaces and in our communities.

Unfortunately, excellence in business is usually measured monetarily in terms of profit, net worth, number of clients or patrons, stock value, and so on. But these criteria cannot measure true excellence. Excellence has a spiritual dimension that can only be measured in real, human terms.

I think of the sincere efforts of an aunt whose acts were never celebrated in the media or recognized in any special way. One of her neighbors was a reclusive woman who had lost her husband. She often engaged in peculiar behavior, which provided us children with opportunities to make fun of her. But seeing that she had neither friends nor family, my aunt visited her frequently, taking her food, talking with her, comforting 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 [1982], 543).

Standing for Honesty

In Book of Mormon times there was an entire group of people who 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, October 1968, 122).

Success in business does not need to come at the cost of compromise. As we seek to remain faithful to the principles of the gospel—focusing on eliminating unrighteous motives, situational opportunities, and unethical behavior—the Spirit will help us remain true to our commitment to be honest in all our dealings with others.

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 temptations to be dishonest. If we are truly anchored in Christ (see 1 Ne. 15:24; Hel. 5:12), dishonesty will have no place in our hearts or in our lives.

[illustrations] Illustrated by Steve Kropp