The Bottom Line on Character

The Bottom Line on Character

The Power of Character
The Power of Character
This selection is reprinted from Josephson Institute’s The Power of Character, which includes diverse essays from a variety of accomplished and interesting people.
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B. David BrooksB. David Brooks a pioneer in the character-education field, is an international education consultant and president of the Jefferson Center for Character Education. A former teacher at all school levels and a principal at two Los Angeles area high schools, he is a member of the CHARACTER COUNTS! Coalition Advisory Council and of the Character Education Partnership. He has trained over 4,000 teachers in his Lessons in Character curriculum (adopted by the L.A. Unified School District). His STAR program to teach common core values systematically has reached over 3 million students. He is coauthor of The Case for Character Education (1983) and has also written books and articles about parent education, self-esteem, and preventing gang violence. Often serving as an expert in character education for the national media, he has appeared on numerous radio and TV talk shows.

The Bottom Line on Character
by B. David Brooks, Ph.D.

Does having a workplace full of trustworthy, respectful, responsible, fair, caring, civic-minded employees make for a better workplace? Does it make for a more profitable business?

Consider the following story. A large bank in northern California started a program to train unemployed people as bank tellers. These individuals were hired and trained with full pay and benefits and were treated as regular employees. After only one year the bank terminated this uniquely worthwhile program, but not because of the inability of the participants to learn banking skills, and not for reasons of funding or participant interest. The reason given by the bank for ending the program was the lack of “character” on the part of participants.

Bank officials and trainers reported that they could teach banking skills and the participants demonstrated that they could learn these skills. But too many of the participants were unreliable, failed to show up for training, arrived late, failed to call in when they were not going to be at work, could not take constructive criticism, lacked initiative and, in some cases, were dishonest.

These kinds of problems are no secret within the business community; yet when questioned about these concerns employers frequently shrug their shoulders in dismay and reply that they do the best they can given the type of worker they are getting. They bemoan the fact that they have no strategies to help alleviate the problem. One employer said, “I don’t have the time or the skills to teach my employees values and character. I just have to keep an eye on them and if I catch them doing something wrong, I document it and when I get enough, I let them go.” My question to her was, “How much of your time and profits are you sacrificing while your are keeping your eye on your employees?” Her response, “I think quite a bit.”

This is not only an issue for the huge corporations that spot the business landscape, but also this is an issue for all employers, the small company with a few employees to those with several hundred or several thousand. When employees behave in nonethical ways everyone suffers: the consumer, the vendor, the owner, the stockholders and other employees. Conversely, when a company acts ethically there are many winners.

During the past several years business and professional communities have begun to look at the issue of employee character and how it affects the bottom line – in other words, profit. Evidence of this growth of interest in values and ethics in the workplace is boldly underscored by the growth of the Ethics Officer Association (EOA), a national organization dedicated to promoting ethical business practices. The Ethics Officer Association was formed in 1992 with 12 members. At the end of 1997 the EOA had a growing membership of 476 members. During 1997, the membership nearly doubled.

In 1997 the EOA, along with the American Society of Chartered Life Underwriters and Chartered Financial Consultants, released a landmark study, “Sources and Consequences of Workplace Pressure: Increasing the Risk of Unethical and Illegal Business Practices.” Results showed that 16 percent of respondents cut corners on quality control, 14 percent covered up incidents and 11 percent abused or lied about sick days. These are but a few of the unethical behaviors reported. Each of them has an impact on profitability, customer relations and internal morale. All of which are “bottom line” issues.

The character-education movement

The heightened interest in character and values in the workplace has expressed itself as well in the swelling character education movement in schools. In 1983, Frank Goble and I wrote The Case for Character Education, the first book calling for a discussion of the need to return to the systematic teaching of values and character in the nation’s schools. In the 15 years since publication there has been a phenomenal rise in the awareness of the importance, especially among educators, of accepting the notion that schools must return to teaching the habits of good character in the same purposeful manner that they teach academics. It is apparent that educators have rediscovered a point made by Theodore Roosevelt when he said, “To educate a person in mind but not in morals is to educate a menace to society.”

The character-education movement has spawned a number of books, curricula and organizations all focused on the need to teach character in the nation’s classrooms. This movement has not been without its doubters and debates. Nonetheless, character education is moving into the mainstream thinking of educators and is being supported by research studies that demonstrate the positive outcomes of teaching character education systematically.

The students of today are the employees and executives of tomorrow. So it is natural that business, the community and schools work together that ethics prevails in the classroom and in the office. Here is what Esther Schaeffer, executive director of the Character Education Partnership, has to say:

A person is not truly educated if her/his academic or technical knowledge is used or applied in a way that is inconsistent with high moral principles and practices….Employees who are technical ‘whizzes’ can do much to improve a company. But without an ethical underpinning they can be highly destructive…

What can be done?

Let us assume, for the sake of discussion, that many people – perhaps not the majority, but certainly enough to cause a negative effect on the bottom line – are in or entering the workplace with a lack of character. What can an employer do?

  • The first, and perhaps most important principal is to understand that ethical leadership begins at the top. If management does not behave in a manner that models good character then the rank and file can not be expected to perform ethically.
  • But simply acting with good character is not enough. Leaders can not expect those who follow them to adopt the habits of good character by osmosis. As with other skills training in the workplace, character training must be formalized as part of the work experience.
  • Businesses can act to support character education in the communities in which they operate.
  • Finally, businesses must not entertain the logical fallacy of thinking that ethics is always good business. Sometimes acting ethically – acting with character – costs us more than we truly want to pay. We can lose the account or lose the job by being decent and honest. Immediate bottom-line considerations cannot drive all our decisions.

Public attitudes are encouraging. The Ethics Officer Association 1997 study states: “When asked if they believed that ‘ethical dilemmas are an unavoidable consequence of business and cannot be reduced’ only 15 percent agreed. A substantial majority (60 percent) disagreed. This finding indicates a significant shift in public opinion.” The report continues, “In the 1970s and 1980s the pervasive view was that ‘business ethics’ was an oxymoron, or contradiction in terms. It has been assumed that this view has continued to be popularly held. This survey however indicates that today, a majority of workers believe that business and ethics can mix, and that ethical dilemmas can be reduced.”

How one company upholds good character

Major corporations are working hard to incorporate values and ethics into the mainstream thinking of their employees. These efforts include corporations such as Johnson & Johnson, 3-M, Levi-Strauss, Sears Roebuck, Santa Barbara Research Center/Hughes Aircraft, Sprint and Sun Microsystems, among others.

One company at the forefront of this movement is Lancaster Laboratories in Pennsylvania. Earl Hess, the company’s founder and CEO, realized that if his company was to grow and prosper it was imperative that his employees practiced the values he knew were vital. In the corporate mission statement he not only crafted a statement of “what we do,” but “how we are committed doing it”.

Lancaster Laboratories’ Mission Statement and Principles:

We will provide quality, independent laboratory services in the chemical and biological sciences by:

  • fully understanding and always meeting the requirements of those we serve;
  • relating to our clients, coworkers, suppliers and community in a fair and ethical manner;
  • managing our growth and financial resources so we can serve our clients well, preserve independence and maintain our meaningful and enriching workplace.

Lancaster Labs then set up what became known as the “ethics committee” to:

  • encourage and maintain commitment among employees to our core ethical values;
  • act as a think tank in developing a “total ethics process” for orienting new employees and maintaining a high level of awareness and commitment of all within our organization;
  • serve as a monitoring/oversight group for that purpose.

The next step taken by Dr. Hess was to institute a training program, the purpose of which was first to “…develop a sense of urgency for the issue not only in our workplace but in society in general.” and second to develop a “Statement of Values” shared by all employees.

The Statement of Values:

Lancaster Laboratories’ heritage has as its core the ethical treatment of everyone involved with our business. As a corporate community, we embrace our heritage of integrity and strive to live by the following principles:

  • Fairness and honesty in all our relationships;
  • Mutual trust;
  • A respect for ourselves and others;
  • A sense of caring that leads us to act responsibly toward each other in society, now and in the future;
  • Loyalty to our clients and one another;
  • A spirit of open mindedness as we deal with all;
  • Dedication to serve;
  • Good stewardship of our resources;
  • A commitment to flexibility and continuous improvement.

We each take personal responsibility to live these values in all our dealings, knowing full well our pledge may involve difficult choices, hard work, and courage.

The Community Example:

Just trying to improve the ethical climate in one organization can be daunting. One way to make it easier, ironically, is to take on the world. Take, for example, the huge and diverse city of Albuquerque, New Mexico. The city is an active member of a nonprofit, nonpartisan education movement called “CHARACTER COUNTS!.” As a “CHARACTER COUNTS! Community,” the city’s institutional superstructure (the schools, the government, the business and professional community) has embraced the “Six Pillars of Character”: trustworthiness, respect, fairness, caring, responsibility and citizenship. Not only are schoolchildren taught these non-political, non-religious (and therefore, non-divisive!) values in the schools, but businesses are working to put these values in front of their employees. Initially the plan calls for a few local businesses to volunteer as “pilots.” Following this initial effort others will be invited to become involved. While it is too early to assess the impact of this effort, the need for such an effort was verified by the fact that more companies requested to be “pilots” than the city’s “CHARACTER COUNTS! Leadership Council” could handle.

“What does [CHARACTER COUNTS!] have to do with the workplace? All workplaces have ‘customers,’ the organizations who receive the results of ‘employees’ and ‘vendors.’ These are our work, our fellow workers, and those who provide to us. Customers who have confidence and faith in us return to buy our products and services, over and over again. Treating customers with respect and dignity enhances customer service. Listening and caring means more satisfied customers – and more profits.

Fair and open communication and caring about our employees result in increased productivity, better morale and less turnover. Honest and ethical behavior means fewer business losses. Citizenship and responsibility promote teamwork and a sense of pride in job performance.”
— Albuquerque’s “CHARACTER COUNTS! in the Workplace” Leadership Council

The CHARACTER COUNTS! in the Workplace effort includes training in many areas in an effort to link the “Six Pillars of Character” to various aspects of the working environment. Seminars focus on awareness and implementation. The design is to have all workers develop the habits of good character. Training consists of the following:

  1. The Josephson Institute Decision-Making Model, which states:
    • All decisions must take into account and reflect a concern for the interests and well being of all stakeholders.
    • Ethical values and principles always take precedence over nonethical ones.
    • It is ethically proper to violate an ethical principle only when it is clearly necessary to advance another true ethical principle which, according to the decision-maker’s conscience, will produce the greatest balance of good in the long run.
  2. Instruction in how to use the company’s vision or mission statement to define character in the workplace.
  3. Relating the Six Pillars to product creation, sales, customer services, invoicing, delivery, interviewing, hiring and performance-review processes.


  • Develop a Code of Ethics regardless of the size of your company.
  • Create ownership for the Code of Ethics by including all levels of employee in the creation of the code.
  • Keep the Code of Ethics alive by making it part of the language and culture of the company.
  • Create a process where values and ethics are and integral part of your interview, orientation and review procedures.
  • The fact that ethical leadership starts at the top must be a central belief and practice of management.
  • Institute ongoing training in ethics and values.
  • Institutionalize the notion that ethical dilemmas can be reduced through communication, awareness, discussions, training and practice.
  • Support character education in the schools.
  • Recognize and reward ethical behavior. Ethical practices do impact the bottom line!

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