Business Ethics: An Oxymoron?

My friend, Rich Marin, has invited me to teach at one of his graduate business school classes in San Diego, on the subject of Evaluating and Using Business Ethics. While looking forward to this, it’s forced me to take several actions.  The first was to find a company around which to build an appropriate case study, one which could become a lens for evaluating the points I hope to make.  After some reflection, I chose the story of Theranos.  The jury had just found its CEO guilty of fraud charges this month (January 2022). The saga of this company’s trip from a $9B valuation to zero is compelling and provides an opportunity to discuss the ethical issues I plan to cover.

Next, I reviewed ethical issues I faced in my business career, as real-world questions faced by the presenter are sometimes the most memorable.  Then I dusted off and reviewed sources and inspiration for my ideas on right and wrong and tools I evolved for making decisions consistent with my values and beliefs. Finally, I found several books written by thinkers on ethics and read or re-read them, including one Rich assigned his students.  I’ll list these, as well as some videos at the bottom of this newsletter, with some links. This newsletter is as much to help me crystalize my thinking as it is to convey some thoughts to readers on why I believe this is such an important topic.

I believe ethics is not a theoretical abstract idea to be relegated to the classroom or pulpit. Ethics is practical and pragmatic, a tool for making the best decisions, in business and life.  It helps ensure our choices are consistent with our values, principles, beliefs, and norms.  The more difficult and ambiguous the decision, the more ethical considerations play an important, even crucial role.   Complicating things is the fact that right and wrong are often moving targets. While one may be tempted to believe the proper decision is only a matter of viewing alternatives against a backdrop of carved-in-stone rules or codified laws, it often is far more complex.

Next, I contend business ethics is not an oxymoron. While fraud at Enron, cheating clients at Goldman Sachs, illegal foreclosures at Countrywide Financial, and a Ponzi scheme by Bernie Madoff may seem like a trend, they’re all anomalies.  Most businesses struggle to operate within the law and some even adhere to strict ethical standards.  It is rare to join a decent-sized company today and not be given an employee manual containing a section on ethical considerations.  Some larger companies even have chief ethics and compliance officers, responsible for training, monitoring, and auditing compliance with laws and the company’s expressed values. Ethical failures, businesses have found, can lead to embarrassing messes that require massive effort and expense to clean up. Better to do it right the first time.

Is Business Ethics an oxymoron in “Fake It ‘till You Make It” culture?

Although I’d read some about Theranos and its charismatic CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, I was unaware of the whole story.   While my timeline in Silicon Valley overlapped somewhat with hers, she and her company were not on my radar. By the time they left their “quiet period,” I was long gone and so have no firsthand knowledge.  During a deep dive into the company, I was again impressed with how incredible the Internet is at chronicling and preserving nearly everything.  Besides books and movies, I was able to easily find some of the first news stories on the company.  I watched an early TED talk where Holmes outlined her dreams for the company and even found a clip of her on the stage with Bill Clinton.  I found the first of what would become many cover stories on Holmes which would pack newsstands, including Roger Parloff’s cover profile of her in Fortune Magazine in June of 2014 with the headline, This CEO is out for Blood as well as Ken Auletta’s in-depth article in The New Yorker in December of 2014.

Within a few days, I’d created a PowerPoint presentation with most of the key elements for a solid case study – a timeline of Theranos, information on the key players, and finally, the protagonist who made the decisions that we could scrutinize and discuss.

Since then I’ve engaged several good friends and former business colleagues in discussions on ethical questions.  Ethical questions impact a large number of contemporary issues and discussing them with so many intelligent people has been a world of fun – although I’m not sure it’s been as much fun for them as it has for me.

Ethical dilemmas are everywhere:

  • Early in the Covid crisis, nurses faced inadequate supplies of protective equipment and limited testing. They could go to work, putting themselves, their patients, and their families at risk. Alternatively, they could stay at home, knowing severely ill patients need nurses to be on duty. What to do?
  • As it relates to charges of voter fraud in the 2020 presidential election, some attorneys who represented those bringing lawsuits claiming fraud may be facing ethical issues with their state bars. On the one hand, every client deserves representation, even those with claims you may not agree with or might be unpopular.  On the other hand, it is something else to file baseless or false claims.  Every state bar has some version of a rule known as “the rule of candor.” It requires that lawyers shall not knowingly file false statements of fact or knowingly present false evidence to a court. The argument goes: by making allegations of voting improprieties without data to substantiate those claims, these lawyers might be violating the rule of candor. They could be disbarred. Which is the ethical choice: to give legal representation or obey the rule of candor?
  • And on voting itself: Should voters vote solely for their interest, or should they vote for the common good, whatever that is?
  • The U.S. Congress where elected officials vote not for the good of the whole (state or country) but for the segment that might re-elect them?

I will no doubt have more to say about all of this after the class, so stay tuned.  In the meantime, below is a list of the most compelling books, movies, and YouTube videos I’ve found on this topic:

Books

Right/Wrong – How Technology Transforms Our Ethics, by Juan Enriqez. A fun, entertaining, and thought-provoking look on how common wisdom and technology enable ethical behaviors.
Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, by John Carreyrou.  A deeply well researched and compelling history of Theranos by the Wall Street Journal reporter who broke the story about the company’s misdeeds in 2015.
Justice: What’s The Right Thing to Do?  By Michael J. Sandel.I’m reading it a second time.  It is an easy read. Sandel weaves in the biggest ethical questions man has struggled with through the ages using contemporary situations and issues.  Highly recommended.
Something for Nothing: Arbitrage and Ethics on Wall Street, by Maureen O’Hara.  This book attempts to tease apart “legal” and “ethical” in a practical and educational way.  Rich recommends it for his class. Not being a finance person, I found it slow going.

Movies

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley – 2019  (Documentary – HBO) Well done, unbiased and thoughtful history of Theranos and what occurred. Many good interviews with key people and relevant historical footage.

The Real Adam Smith: Ideas That Changed the World – 2017  (Documentary in 2 parts – Curiosity Stream and YouTube). Adam Smith’s observations, chronicled in two books written in the 18th Century, on free trade, the nature of wealth, and moral behavior, remain valid in the 20th Century.  This show explores how his thinking changed the world in the decades after his death and how his principles are still part of modern thought. A highly compelling story.

YouTube Videos

Elizabeth Holmes, Theranos CEO at TEDMED 2014

The Significance of Ethics and Ethics Education in Daily Life | Michael D. Burroughs | TEDxPSU

Science can answer moral questions | Sam Harris

Spilling the Blood of a Silicon Valley Unicorn

Creating ethical cultures in business: Brooke Deterline at TEDxPresidio

In His Own Words: The Theranos Whistleblower  (Filmed at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics)

Ex-Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes says ‘I don’t know’ 600+ times in depo tapes: Nightline Part 2/2

How Elizabeth Holmes sold the idea of Theranos to employees, investors: Nightline Part 1/2  (In two parts)

Theranos CEO Elizabeth Holmes: Firing Back At Doubters | Mad Money | CNBC

2015 Clinton Health Matters Initiatve: Disruptors in Healthcare

Theranos: How Did a $9 Billion Health Tech Startup End Up DOA?  (Berkeley Hass School of Business)

Building business on character ethic – Kevin Byrne at TEDxNoviSad

Ethical dilemma: The burger murders – George Siedel and Christine Ladwig

Justice: What’s The Right Thing To Do? Episode 01 “THE MORAL SIDE OF MURDER”  (Class at Harvard University)

Ethics in the age of technology | Juan Enriquez | TEDxBerlin

Thoughts on two films: American Folk and Don’t Look Up

By chance, I watched two movies in the same week that, upon reflection, created some remarkable and fun contrasts.  The first, AMERICAN FOLK (2017) is a movie on Amazon Prime ($0.99 rental).  You can also watch it free (with commercials) on other streaming services like Netflix.  The second, Don’t Look Up (2021) is generating a lot of social media attention.  They’re both good, but of the two, I think my readers will appreciate American Folk.  Where Don’t Look Up is as subtle as Marvel’s Venom monster, American Folk is a cautious, gentle, and beautifully told tale. Not to give anything away, but you’ll need to watch American Folk carefully. It’s easy to dismiss as “nothing’s happening,” when, in fact, a powerful story is being deftly told with subtle tenderness. After piloting my motorcycle on many of the roads traversed in American Folk, the scenery and vistas were recognizable. But more familiar were the everyday interactions the protagonists had with people they met.  This is what generated the greatest affinity for me and reminded me to pay attention and not under-value my coffees and lunches with my old guys, talking about the weather with my neighbor’s tree trimming landscaper, discussing how to attach patches to my motorcycle jacket with the Russian-speaking seamstress and kidding with the woman behind the counter where I drop off my dry cleaning.    American Folk does not have star actors like Meryl Streep, Leonardo DiCaprio, Jennifer Lawrence, or Cate Blanchett. Instead, its two main characters have little acting experience, making them more like your neighbor down the block or the guy you always see at Home Depot. I highly recommended American Folk and, yes, if you’ve not seen it, Don’t Look Up is worth watching, too.

Health Issues (Part 1 of 3): You’re not going to believe this!

If I do this right, you’ll not be bored. Having Open Heart Surgery at 15 years old in the summer of 1965, I became somewhat of a medical anomaly. As unusual and traumatic as that was, I managed to up the ante 50 years later and heart issues have been my primary concern the past few years.  I’ve broken this story into 3 short bite size “parts.” If things medical turns you off, just hit delete. But it’s a pretty cool story. Here goes:

Just short of two years ago, in April of 2018, at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester MN, I underwent an 11-hour open-heart surgery. This highly complex, risky surgery occurred just two years after another open-heart surgery (in 2016) at Mayo Hospital in Arizona where they replaced my ascending aorta and aortic valve. Medical technology and my history have overlapped. Things began when I was 15 years old.

One hurdle to signing up to play football in Fairmont, Minnesota in the 1960s was having an approval form signed by a local doctor. After my ninth grade classes one afternoon I kept an appointment with Dr. Kramer, who had an office a few blocks from the junior high school. After a few minutes in his waiting room with old copies of Family Circle and Life Magazine, I entered the exam room, stripped to my underwear and a routine physical exam commenced. Doing the blood pressure test himself, Dr. Kramer seemed to be having an issue with mine. He asked if I’d run to his office from the school, maybe afraid of being late for my appointment? I said no, I’d been in no rush. He had me dress and asked me to sit in the waiting room for a few minutes. I did. A half hour later he called me back and he began again. Still, no luck finding blood pressure readings that made sense to him. As my mother was a nurse at the local Fairmont Hospital, Dr. Kramer knew her well. With me in the office, he picked up the phone and explained to her what the blood pressure tests were saying to him. He said he wanted a colleague specializing in heart issues to examine me and see what he thought.

A couple of weeks later I had another appointment, but this time my parents both came with me, my first clue that something might be amiss. After an exam that included lots of listening with a stethoscope, blood pressure attempts on my arms and legs and questions about my sports participation and things I could do easily and ones I found difficult, he announced he was fairly certain I had a coarctation of the aorta. This is a constriction or narrowing of the aorta, the large blood vessel that branches off from my heart, delivering oxygen-rich blood to various parts of the body. The constriction forced my heart to work harder to force blood through the narrowed part of my aorta causing an enlarged heart and chest, blood circulation and pressure was very high in my arms and above my chest but almost undetectable in my legs. He also heard some murmurs, indicating there likely were some holes between the chambers of my heart. He said he would call colleagues of his at the pediatric department at the University of Minnesota Heart Hospital and recommend me for open heart surgery to correct these issues. A few weeks later I’d been scheduled for open-heart surgery in August of 1965, a month before my 16th birthday. I was happy, the surgery wasn’t to occur until near the end of summer, not the beginning. At that age, my summers were far more important and interesting to me than the school year.

Next: Health Issues (Part 2 of 3): Yes, they operated on kids back then.

Congratulations! It’s a girl. Oh, and she’s 39 years old.

My cousin Roger Larsen called me from California, early in 2019: “You sittin’ down, cuz?” he asks.  I say I can be. Once seated he blurts out, “You have a daughter!”  “I know,” I say. “She lives in California, name of Ginger, did you forget?” Roger responds, “No, you’ve got another one.  I just got an email from her and she sounds real nice. She lives in Minnesota.  I just forwarded the email she sent me about herself. I’m going to hang up now, but you should read it. And I know you cuz, you’ll do the right thing.” Maggie, who’d come out on the deck as I’d taken the call asked, “What was that all about?”

After a brief explanation, I got on my computer and found the email Christina Will in Minnesota had sent to Roger Larsen.  In this incredibly touching message, Christie communicated how she learned her birth father was “unknown” when her mother tragically passed away when she was nine. It left her longing for answers.   As she grew up she wondered about her birth father and if he knew of her. Did she have a family somewhere in the world?

With the expectation of finding an aunt, uncle or distant cousin who might provide clues to her birth father, she got a 23andMe DNA kit, swabbed her cheek and sent it in. However, instead of a second cousin, on Christmas morning of 2018, she found something else.  23andMe said she had a father – with a name – Steve Larsen.  After a few months of investigating, she asked for my cousin Roger’s guidance: Did he know Steve well? Did he think Steve would want to hear from her? Maybe meet, see his grandchildren?  Would his daughter, Ginger, want to know she had a sister? How would they deal with a potential giant disruption to their lives?

Well, to say this was a shock to us would be the understatement of the decade.  Maggie and I talked, then we called Ginger in San Francisco.  She burst into tears, asked for time to process and said she would call back.  Maggie and I talked some more.  Then I replied to Christie’s email.  In part, I said:

“Christie, Your email was passed to me by my cousin Roger Larsen via his daughter Lori and reached me today.   Wow!  As you have no doubt surmised, this is quite a surprise.  I do remember your mother but was unaware she was pregnant or had you.  Our relationship was not a long one.  Perhaps I had moved to the Twin Cities by the time you were born and was difficult to locate.  Emails and text messages were non-existent in those days. With only a few hours to process, let me tell you my initial feelings:  I am thrilled that you reached out to me and would love to meet you, your daughters and your husband if you want that.  The fact you thought of Ginger and her being your half-sister, and having two nieces she has never met, indicates to me you are a pretty wonderful and thoughtful woman.  In fact, your entire letter was so expressive and beautifully written I can’t imagine any man not being thrilled by the idea he might be related to you.”

I went on to explain a bit more about our lives in Arizona and then flooded her with questions about her and her family.  A few weeks later, Maggie, Ginger and I made plans to travel to Minneapolis and meet Christie in April of 2019. It was a tearful and wonderful meeting I will never forget.

The new family L to R: Chris (Ginger’s boyfriend), Ginger, Maggie, Steve, Christie and Jeff,
with Parker and Emmy in the front.
Christie Will and birth-Dad, Steve, at their first face-to-face meeting.

A few weeks after our meeting, Christie’s pastor asked her to speak about finding her birth father on Father’s Day at her church. She did.  Here is a link to her 14-minute sermon, which touchingly and eloquently explains what happened from her point of view:  https://tinyurl.com/y2s38cco

Maggie and I chose to alter our summer plans to spend six weeks in Minnesota in 2019, visiting family and friends while getting to know our new family a bit better.

The Will family on their farm in Minnesota.

The Will family on their farm in Minnesota.

Christie, her husband, and my new granddaughters arranged their schedules to visit us in Phoenix, not only for Thanksgiving weekend but for a week right after Christmas as well.  2019 was one of the most momentous years of my life. It will take all the restraint I can muster to not fill this blog with stories of this overjoyed and blissfully happy new grandfather.