By: Todd Mannix
In the recent congressional hearings involving GM’s CEO Mary Barra we saw the consequences of what happens when ethics in every layer of a business are not considered or taken seriously. GM is examining its process that allowed non-compliant parts to be assembled in certain models resulting in over a dozen reported deaths. From a CEO standpoint in a large manufacturing organization where defects can result in deaths, I understand the necessity to fall back on process to determine the root cause of such an issue and potential cover up. However, I would argue it is a lot simpler than investigating multiple processes to find the root cause. It’s a matter of ethics and the empowerment or punishment (perceived or real) of those who have the knowledge and ability to prevent bad decisions before they become catastrophic mistakes.
Poor decision making and disregard for ethics has resulted in scandal time and again in our industry. In the past few years alone we have seen numerous master trusts mismanaged as well as the sentencing of those who were involved in creating the insurance debacle of NPS. What’s unfortunate is that these stories leave a mark on the industry as a whole when in actuality these scandals represent a small fraction of those who operate trustworthy businesses in this industry every day.
One of the reasons I enjoy working in this industry is that most people I come into contact with are well versed in ethics. By the nature of what we do, we know people are counting on us to provide a service during their time of need. Most people in our industry take that obligation very seriously and with honor and integrity. They understand that this is the community in which they live and as a member of that community, they are not going to let the community down.
The optimist in me hopes that most of the people that ended up making poor or unethical decisions didn’t start out as bad people. My belief is that most people are good and it isn’t until they are faced with temptation or when their backs are against the wall that they fail to do the right thing. Life can be difficult, especially in down economic markets. More and more today there seems to be a “no harm, no foul” mentality. People do seemingly small unethical things every day. They cut someone off in traffic because they are in a hurry; they allow a check out clerk’s mistake in their favor even though they were ready to pay the full price when they got into line; they do not take action when they see a small injustice for fear of “getting involved”. These are very general examples, but the point is that for people of ethical character, it does not only apply to the big decisions in life, it applies to everything. We rationalize decisions we know are wrong because we don’t see the harm in it, but there is a big difference in thinking rationally and rationalizing thinking. Aristotle said, “We do not act rightly because we have virtue or excellence, but rather we have those because we have acted rightly.” Our actions large and small define us.
The issue is that when people brush off the small things as a faultless action (or inaction), they open themselves up to larger and larger unethical decisions. Where the line is drawn between things they will and will not do becomes more and more blurred. Decisions they may not have made when they first started out then become justified in their mind. This leads to an unethical spiral that ultimately can lead to the stories we read about in the news. Albert Einstein put it this way, “Relativity applies to physics, not ethics.” We cannot simply justify unethical behavior no matter the size of the issue.
Ethical principals can be applied regardless of the size and scope of the issue, because they define ethical character, not situations. Furthermore, the best thing about a person’s character is simply that we are all works in progress. A former boss and mentor of mine used to say regularly, “It’s never too late to do the right thing.” While Barra was not the CEO when the decision was made to use the non-spec parts, it appears to me as though she has begun the process of taking responsibility for and addressing the problems. She seemed to be honestly sorrowful for the loss of life that resulted, and while she can do nothing to bring them back, she can take action to make sure something like this never happens again. I hope what comes out of their investigation is a cultural change that places emphasis on ethical standards at every level of the company with regard to their commitment to their customer. No matter how broken a process may be, if ethics are a cornerstone of their culture, this specific scenario will never be repeated. Maybe GM can take a page from the majority of folks in this industry as it is something that this profession practices regularly, every day, in the small things we do for our clients before, during, and after their time of need. FBA
Todd Mannix is in funeral and cemetery trust administration, and is the Vice President of Sales and Marketing for Cooperative Funeral Fund, Inc. (CFF). CFF specializes in the management of preneed and perpetual care fund accounts. CFF has provided a program for the death care industry to facilitate the creation, investment, tax compliance and payout of funeral trusts since 1989. He can be reached at 800-336-1102 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.