Is Honor in Business Dead?

We humans love honor. We admire it. We love movies about it. We hero-worship people who display courageous acts of honor. We live in a country filled with amazing stories of honor — of Manuel Quezon honoring his word during the darkest days of Corregidor, of Ninoy Aquino sacrificing his life for principle. The list could go on and on.

We love and admire it so much. Yet how many want to actually be honorable?  I have to wonder, what has happened to honor? Is it dead?

Has it been replaced by the slick politician, smooth-talking lawyer, and the “cover-your-ass-at-all-costs” executive? Replaced by a Wall Street mentality of “It’s all about me and screw everyone else”? There used to be a time when the mantra of the seas was, “The captain goes down with his ship. And captains did this. They put the safety of the crew and passengers above all else. This was the price of leadership of being a ship captain, and if you didn’t like it, then don’t take the damn job.

Open the paper today and what do we see? We see the captain of a South Korean ferry who basically is the first one to jump off the listing ship and into a lifeboat, while he leaves over 250 teenagers to fend for themselves, under his orders to “stay below decks” and hence ensure their death during capsizing.

It’s disgusting. Where is the honor? It went out the window and was replaced by a “save my own skin and screw you” mentality.

I remember a time in the corporate world when people were loyal to people. I remember turning down a great job once, simply out of loyalty to my boss, who was so good to me; I could not betray him by leaving. Honor and loyalty meant something. What I see today is little more than prostitution of another form — people selling out at the first hint for a bigger paycheck, no matter who they screw over or stab in the back. Hell, some will switch sides in a second and join a direct competitor without even a second glance. “Business is war; it is just a different battlefield.” In war, this is considered the act of a total traitor, to switch sides. But somehow, some feel they can do this and still be called “honorable.”

It’s not like honor means perfection. Nobody is perfect. I have been offered bribes several times in my career. And, while I have never taken a bribe, I am ashamed in a sense to say I did consider taking a multi-million-dollar bribe once. It tempted me. I am ashamed of this, because I would like to think my principles are strong enough. But I am a human like anyone else, and can be tempted. So I can understand why taking a bribe can be so enticing, I have been there, and I, too, was tempted.

When I worked in Nigeria we caught 281 employees in fraudulent activities, from kickbacks to outright theft. I fired immediately in each case 280 of them, save one person. Now, you are probably asking about the one exception. What was the story?

Well, it’s a simple story about honor.

As we were uncovering acts of fraud, every person caught red-handed had an excuse. They were framed in some elaborate scheme. Or someone commandeered their computer. Or someone forged their signature. The list went on and on full of pathetic excuses, reminding me of the current PDAF scandal in which nobody seems to step up and take any responsibility for the loss of billions of pesos of taxpayer money.

I was so disgusted I sent a letter to the entire company. I told people that I could handle people making mistakes. I could handle people falling prey to temptation. We are all, after all, human. But what I cannot tolerate is someone being dishonorable and then lying about it in a feeble attempt to preserve honor. I even went as far as to say, if someone would have the honor to simply say, “I did it” and explain why, I might be willing to forgive. But all of the made-up stories only made matters worse.

Well, we had one man who we investigated come forward. He admitted he took a bribe. He felt horrible about it and wanted to pay back the company. He talked about the costs of his children and how he could not make ends meet, and he had to do it to pay for his kid’s education. Yes, he made a mistake. But honor can come in an instant and honor can go in an instant. You can lose honor and regain it.

So this guy we decided to give a second chance. And he became a model employee. That’s the one who didn’t lose his job. He was dishonorable, but he tried to redeem himself — not with more lies and more dishonor, but taking responsibility, in an honorable fashion.

I have just written a long letter to my entire young organization about this very topic: honor. How rare it is. But how important it is. Honor has a very important place in business. Coaching young leaders is not always about teaching how to run a business or develop advertising or manage a project. Sometimes it is coaching on the soft side like honor.  Honor defines character. It forms your reputation. And it is the foundation for one’s legacy. More than enough reasons to ignore the examples in the world around us, and make honor fashionable again.