The national headlines in the past few weeks have focused on a political and ethical dilemma: the lobbying work of Jack Abramoff. In exchange for receiving briefings on behalf of his clients—often Native American gaming interests and government policies on agriculture—elected officials and their staff members received special gifts: flights on corporate jets, trips to international destinations and resorts, and very expensive meals in Washington. In fact, his name now has become an adjective. We can say to a politician, “You have an Abramoff problem.”
Yet high-profile lobbying isn’t the only place where financial scandals occur. Week after week we can read about employees of companies, school districts, and government, as well as volunteers in community organizations and nonprofits, who’ve siphoned off money for themselves, their families, or their special interests. This problem isn’t a new one. We have better tracking mechanisms to be sure all funds are in place and haven’t been used in an unauthorized manner. So we know more quickly and more accurately how money has been spent and who’s been spending it.
So what is it about money that creates real ethical problems? Jesus has some insight in his teaching to his disciples. Directly or indirectly, he makes reference to money throughout the Gospels. One of his most memorable teachings is when he finally says, “You cannot serve God and Money.” The term “Money” is capitalized because, in the original language, it wasn’t just a tangible item like coins or paper, but a spiritual and ethical force. The term: Mammon.
So when we have Mammon problems, they’re like Abramoff problems—there’s an impact on our life and on the lives of those around us. Basically, the effect of our decisions, good or bad, about money has a wider impact the more responsible our position or our influence. For example, if a person uses company resources to live luxuriously when traveling, what’s the impact? For the line employee, management looks bad, and the budget is in the red. For the senior executive, the stockholders feel an impact from corporate waste and excess.
We notice the difference even more clearly when we work in the public sector—in tax-supported agencies or in nonprofit organizations. Even more than in the corporate sector, those in the public and nonprofit sector who misuse or embezzle money for personal interests are using other people’s money. After all, as financial gifts, grants, tax dollars, or service fees are used to advance the organization’s mission, funders have a stake in the use of funds. Sadly, this sector is where we hear about unethical use of money.
So how do we define “ethical use of money”? To begin with, we need to realize that training in the use of money really began in our family of origin, when we were children. We might have learned lessons about prudent money management or about our entitlement for whatever we want (whether we can afford it or not)—or perhaps we received no training at all from our parents or other adults.
In management, we can’t assume everyone begins on the same page when it comes to money management and financial ethical practices. So we need to develop a training program in money and ethics in the workplace. There are four key lessons we want to communicate in this training.
• When we’re using other people’s money, we understand that we must consider, decide, and act in their interests—and for their best return. We can do what we want in our own households, but when we’re using the financial assets of our employer or the organization that shares our interests, we understand a key ethical position is best return on people’s investments, whether in securities, grants, or gifts—not our best return or benefit.
• In the workplace, we must be accountable for our use of corporate or organizational funds. We must report on the use of all funds and our compliance with corporate and organizational policies on spending. That includes loose ends such as expense accounts and purchases outside of budget or beyond a certain amount.
• When invited to use money “under the table” for contracting with preferred vendors, we must refuse. Vendors will want to make special deals or side agreements that will bring special benefits to us. Unethical? Absolutely. That’s favoritism, not competitive position.
• When invited to focus spending for rewards with vendors, we must look instead for the best value for the company or organization. Many companies now have “preferred purchaser” programs that yield points for special items that can be redeemed by the individual. Again, the use of money isn’t for our benefit, but for the best value for the company or organization.
Money and ethics is an ongoing challenge in every sector of American society. Companies and organizations will do well to invest in financial ethics training to promote good financial practice, prevent losses, and create a transparent financial environment. IBI