Who loves employee codes of conduct? Given how sprawling and lawyerly many of them are, who can even read them? If you’re a boss who is thinking of scrapping yours and embracing one that reflects the values embodied in your company’s slogan, like Google’s “Don’t be evil” or Zappos’ “Be humble,” your employees will certainly appreciate it.* Yes, even in this era of widespread anxiety over expanding secularism and fear that we’re failing to teach right from wrong, the fact remains that most people are on solid moral ground.
A recent—and very popular—article in the New York Times got me thinking about corporate ethics. It was an opinion piece charging the Common Core educational standards with conditioning young people to disbelieve in moral truths.
The article’s author, Fort Lewis College professor Justin P. McBrayer, says he’s found that college students are arriving at school with the conviction that moral claims are “mere opinions that are not true or are true only relative to a culture.” After examining some of his son’s second-grade schoolwork, he finds that the culprit is the Common Core. The standards, he says, teach children as young as seven and eight that facts can be tested and proven and that opinions are something personally felt or believed—and that there is no middle ground. McBrayer concludes children learn from this that “there are no moral facts. And if there are no moral facts, then there are no moral truths.”
If that’s really the case, we would have to alter our current ideas about corporate ethics. After all, what could “Don’t be evil,” or “Be humble,” mean to a fresh recruit who doesn’t understand that there can be such things as moral truths?
I don’t see this happening. The latter are just two publicly expressed values that have emerged from millennial-driven Silicon Valley. Unpretentious codes of conduct—or at least minimalist prefaces to more typical codes—are now commonplace among startups. As Kellogg School of Management professor Brayden King puts it, corporations are now writing their ethics statements in a more “descriptive, rather than prescriptive” manner to entice future employees.
“In part, it’s an advertising or marketing function for a firm to differentiate from its peers in attracting good employees,” King says. “Zappos is seen as a sexier place to work for with a given identity.” He thinks that corporate codes of conduct “are really more of an attempt to articulate culture.”
And it turns out that there is no better way to attract the millennial generation than with an ecologically supportive code of conduct. According to Forbes.com’s assessment of a Bentley University survey last year:
85% of millennials want to work for a socially responsible or ethical company. 95% of millennials say that a company’s reputation matters to them. And 91% say that a company’s social impact efforts are important when they are considering which companies to work for. A majority of millennials (51%) have concerns and doubts about whether most businesses do the right thing.
This is why I don’t believe McBrayer has it right. The Common Core standards get almost everything wrong when it comes to educational policy, but not because they inculcate moral relativism. Dire warnings about the corrupting influence of moral relativism among college students were as alarming when I was in college some half a century ago as they are today. But it seems that college graduates maintain at least some moral convictions.
As Daniel Engber points out in an article in Slate, McBrayer’s piece is largely at odds with empirical evidence. Studies show that young people are not turned into relativists by their education; they happen to arrive at college around the age when they go through a mild phase of experimental relativism. But both before and after going to college, students are less relativistic in their convictions.
Possessing moral convictions does not require religious training either. A recent op-ed in the Los Angeles Times points out that it’s possible to have a strong moral core without adhering to a religious belief system. Long-term studies at the University of Southern California, Pitzer College and Duke University have found that secular American families have deep moral values that include “rational problem solving, personal autonomy, independence of thought, avoidance of corporal punishment, a spirit of ‘questioning everything’ and, far above all, empathy.”
So, it seems to me, corporate codes that emphasize mottos like “Don’t be evil,” are actually moving in the right direction. They remind people that their personal standards of morality should come with them into the workplace. For far too long, many corporate codes have been influenced by the mistaken notion that business behavior ought to be governed by different standards. After all, isn’t the main purpose of a corporation—unlike an individual—to make profit? Or to return earnings to shareholders?
The new codes remind us that this is not true. The main purpose of a corporation is to provide a valuable product or service. This is why a corporation still has to be incorporated in a home state: It’s a vestige of a time when government had to certify that corporate activities would be beneficial to the community. If this seems quaint now, it’s because we’ve swallowed the idea that corporations exist primarily to make money.
There is a great opportunity here for business to send a message that employees can be the same people in the workplace and at home, that they can have integrity in all aspects of their lives. By adopting corporate codes that prioritize contributions to society, business could remind everyone that employees are ends in themselves, not merely means of production.
Such a code could easily be built around what Alexis de Tocqueville called “self-interest rightly understood”—the simple notion that doing right by others eventually comes round to benefit the doer as well. It’s not a very exalted moral principle, but it has three attractive qualities. First, it’s often true in practice. Second, it’s easy to understand. And third, it places priority on the valuable product or service rather than on profit. And that’s where the priority belongs.
At the very least, we should expect corporate codes of conduct not to impede the ability of decent people to do good in the world. Our biggest concern is not whether Millennials have a moral compass. They do. It’s how to harness their energy and their convictions with appropriate corporate codes of conduct that allow them to make constructive contributions to the human communities in which they live.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. This essay first appeared on Huffington Post (March 2015) and is republished with gracious permission of the author.