What’s the Best Rule of Thumb for Ethical Business Decision-Making?

John Maxwell wrote a book on business ethics in which he famously said that there’s no such thing as business ethics. There is only ethics. And Maxell’s suggested rule of thumb for everyday life—including our business dealings—is the Golden Rule. He encourages us to ask ourselves: “How would I like to be treated in this situation?”

We all need general rules of thumb to help us navigate daily decision-making. A thorough cost-benefit analysis isn’t possible for the dozens of morally relevant decisions we may face in the course of a day. But if we inevitably must rely on some rule of thumb—say, in our commercial interactions with others—what should that rule of thumb be?

We could do a lot worse than the Golden Rule. But let me suggest a slightly different rule of thumb, which I myself have found helpful.

In a previous post I noted that Christians are called to pursue the “Common Good.” This call is not simply to help lots of people receive good, separate things which they can each enjoy in isolation. Rather, it is a call to seek those things that can only be sought together, and that can only be received together.

The end result of truly seeking and receiving the Common Good is that our successes must become others’ successes as well. Their difficulties must become our difficulties. In short, a commitment to the Common Good means that our well-being as individuals ultimate rises or falls together.

A good rule of thumb for business practices, I think, will need to reflect these points. So maybe a good rule of thumb comes to this: Is this business practice I’m considering a “win-win”? Employees can ask: Yes, this action would be good for me; is it also good for my employer? Supervisors can ask: Yes, this is action is going to make me look good; will it also make those who assist me look good? Management teams can ask: Yes, this action is good for our company; is it also good for our customers? Our suppliers? Wider stakeholders in the community?

Let me quickly add that any rule of thumb is going to be inadequate as a thorough guide for navigating every complex business decision or moral dilemma a company will face. No easy rule of thumb is going to give a manufacturer an easy formula for deciding whether to close down a factory in one community and open up a bigger one in another community. Nor is it going to resolve how a company should implement a drug-testing policy, as it seeks to balance concerns for work safety with concerns for employee privacy.

Still, I don’t know that we can do much better, as a general rule of thumb, than to look for win-win situations in whatever business dealing we’re considering. And it helps us immediately see that some business models are really destructive—at least from the Christian perspective of the Common Good. Some business models are designed to make a company substantial profits when individuals fall behind on loan payments or otherwise get into debts which they cannot get out of. If a company’s plan for “success” includes spiraling interest payments and whopping service charges—again reserved for those who run into financial trouble—what does that say about the company’s relationship to its customers? It’s the antithesis of the ‘win-win’ rule of thumb; and it’s the antithesis of the mutually-enhancing, Trinitarian-reflecting relationships which God is trying to move every person on earth toward.

Contrast this with the fantastic business model a friend of mine came up with. He is semi-retired, and he started a business to give himself a partial paycheck once he retired from full-time work. My friend will pick a small company and examine their telecommunications systems. He then figures out a way to configure these systems more efficiently and to save the company money on their telecommunication bills. He then offers his standard deal to the company: “I’ll permanently save you money on your telecommunications if, for the first two years, you’ll split your savings with me 50-50.” It’s such a fantastic business model. (It’s also worked. His “part-time” business has grown to the point where he’s had to add an employee!)

Now, I fully recognize that not every business model and decision can be win-win in such a neat and tidy way. But the win-win question seems to me a solid, Christian rule of thumb as to what our commercial interactions with one another, in principle, should look like. I sometimes am asked whether I think some particular business practice is in keeping with “Christian principles.” As a starting point for such a discussion, I don’t know that we can do any better than to identify the various stakeholders and then ask: “Is this a win-win?” As Christians I think we’re called to continually ask ourselves this question—whether the context is a corporate management meeting or our conversation with a seller at the local flea market.