Learning business ethics from the Dalai Lama

Published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, Business Features Section, May 31, 2002

NOT A FEW with the corporate world fail to see the fit and relevance between business, viewed as temporal and material and ethics, a discipline largely associated with the scientific study of moral standards that are reasonable, right and justifiable.

Academic institutions quick to recognize this ineptness among many business professionals that is likely to have arisen because of the huge gap between theory and manifested business practice or behavior, have introduced the subject Business Ethics.

The subject dwells expansively on the study of moral standards as they become applicable to the field of business, organizations and behavior among business professionals and stakeholders in the business environment.

Much of today’s Business Ethics classes deal with the ethical principles of utilitarianism (i.e. this principle tells us that an action is good if it produces the greatest good for the greatest number) and Kantianism (i.e., this principle tells us never to take any action that you would not be willing to see others faced with). Interestingly, though, virtue ethics as propagated in the teachings of His Holiness The Dalai Lama carry more explicit standards by which to judge behaviors in business and much can be learned from his espoused views and principles.

While Dalai Lama’s spiritual practice is founded on the tenets of Buddhism, his teachings go beyond Buddhist religious dogma.

A 1989 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate awardee, with incredible commitment to nonviolence and peaceful negotiation, the Dalai Lama XIV Tenzin Gyatso, is the acknowledged spiritual and temporal leader in exile by the Tibetan people for over 50 years now.

While in exile, he continues to negotiate for the peaceful resolution of Tibet’s cause of preserving its historical and cultural heritage, in peaceful co-existence with China. Following are a few of the Dalai Lama’s espoused virtues, which he calls “universal truths,” that can find ground in business.

Ethic of Compassion. One of Dalai Lama’s espoused universal truth is the ethic of compassion which means acting out of concern for others. With concern for others comes peace in one’s heart, peace to the family, to the workplace, community at large and everyone an individual associates with.

Today’s business environment is literally rocked with layoffs, downsizing and significant job cuts resulting from mergers, restructuring and inevitably the economic downturn. While the outcome of any dismissal remains the same which include unavoidable shock and humiliation not to mention financial worries and emotional strain, employers can cushion this aftermath by manifesting the economic of compassion and concern for their employees.

Organizations can implement human resource policies and systems that soften the blow for affected workers. One key development in human resources management is the setup of outplacement counseling services which do not only assist job seekers who have been referred by former employers but is largely more concerned with outplacement counseling that aims to boost displaced workers’ confidence, provide training for basic job search skills (after all, a typical executive may have been with a company for 20 years and may have archaic job hunting skills), hold interview practice sessions, networking workshops and career evaluation which may even lead to discovery of the displaced worker’s entrepreneurial or self-employment skills. While severance packages come in handy, the extra mile established by human resource mechanisms that respect the dignity of workers and exhibit concern for employees go a long way toward establishing a positive feeling and peace pipe with a former employer.

Ethic of universal responsibility. A sense of responsibility toward others means that we are duty bound to care for other members of society. This means that we should not turn away those who are disadvantaged, marginalized and grievously afflicted.

On February 2, 1998, Cebu Pacific Air Flight 387 slammed onto the mountainside of Mt. Sumagaya killing all 104 passengers. Immediately, search and rescue efforts were mounted. Likewise, half of the entire staff volunteered to be temporarily stationed in Southern Cagayan de Oro where the plane went down to comfort the victims’ families and assist in the search. Further, management did its best to ease the family’s strain and burden. In their darkest hours of waiting for body bags and body parts, each family was assigned a Cebu Pacific employee as “human crutch” to attend to their every need. There were no lengthy appeals for settlement. Everything was speedily arranged including insurance an free air travel to visit the dead every February 2 and November 1. In the end, not one of the victim’s families sued the airline or the aircraft manufacturer.

In contrast, the surviving families of crash victims of Air Philippines Flight 541 in Davao City were faced with the indifferent attitude of Air Philippines management. Unlike Cebu Pacific, Air Philippines did not provide free tickets to the relatives and is facing legal action from the victims’ relatives. It comes as no surprise therefore, when families of the victims of Cebu Air Flight 387 acknowledge that the airline’s display of responsibility over them has tremendously helped them overcome their loss, go on with their lives and even form a unique and lasting bond among crash victims’ families and the airline firm.

Ethic of restraint. Patient forbearance or the ability to put in check negative thoughts and emotions that can lead to conduct that becomes ethically wholesome.

In April of this year, Procter & Gamble Co. and Unilever surprisingly devoid of any bitter dispute, went into a peaceful settlement of reparations for P&G’s corporate espionage activities of Unilever’s hair care business.

This says much about the professionalism and wholesome ethical conduct of both organizations that manifested much restraint. In contrast, the public finger-pointing between Ford Motor Co. and Firestone, a unit of Japan’s Bridgestone Corp. severed the 100-year relationship between Ford and Firestone and did little to advance the argument of both companies in determining who should assume fault for the Explorer rollovers.

Ethics in society. Dalai Lama stresses the important universal truth of how the media have become a powerful force in shaping society’s ethical conduct. This therefore confers a great responsibility on all who work in media. But it also puts responsibility on the individual who listens, reads and watches. After all, the control switch is in the hands of the audience.

This does not mean that violent image have absolutely no place in society. On the contrary, an ethically wholesome effect can still be achieved even while watching a film with violence if the viewers’ compassion is triggered by the images. These images then would have served a purpose and can even be justified. But if the violent images lead to indifference then it can only most naturally result to the ultimate danger of hardening of heart and lack of empathy. When media close in on the negative aspects of human, there is great danger that violence and aggression become justified in the minds of society which brings me to the irony of how media, a most powerful tool that can serve as a catalyst for positive transformation can do otherwise.

Notice how media producers can sometimes compromise values for profit even in the most basic form of entertaining game shows like “The Weakest Link” which can only bring out the darkest side of the show’s participants. Ina bid to raise the group’s pot, the contenders enthusiastically support each other until in a seemingly malicious twist the rest of the contenders willfully connive and vote to eliminate the most knowledgeable in the group, sadly also the highest contributor to the group’s pot, because he also happens to be the biggest threat to the prize money. It also does not help that the show’s host must project a personality of utmost coldness and indifference.

As my 9-year old son succinctly put it, “ It’s a brutally entertaining show.” Which begs the question, it may be entertaining but is it ethically wholesome? Ultimately, Dalai Lama’s principle for ethical conduct boils down to a “good heart” where one leads an ethical life of responsibility and compassion for others. A good heart means having the heart of one who acts out of a desire to help others.

Love for others and respect for their rights and dignity, no matter who or what they are is, after all, the only thing one needs in a life of responsible ethical conduct.