“In today’s society making money is all that matters.” This was the first sentence in a business case I was grading that was written by four undergraduate senior management majors. The case was about the three-tiered system of beer breweries, beer distributors, and retailers. The case itself is not important, unless you want cheaper beer. Then you might be an advocate for eliminating the middlemen (distributors).
The comment I wrote next to the students’ sentence was, “Only business majors would say this.” Then I started thinking about the extent to which money really is “all that matters” in the minds of managers. The two most popular majors in our business school are accounting and finance, which are pretty much all about money. Marketing is the third most popular major, and it is all about making money. Next come the management majors. In the operations course I teach, and in my organizational design course, the basic idea is to create organizations and processes that maximize productivity and reduce costs so that firms can make more money. This case was about how brewers and retailers can cut costs and make more money. Thus the students’ statement seems to be valid in its context. But just how valid is it?
I would have been more comfortable with the statement if it had said, “In today’s society, making money is a high priority.” But then there was Enron and a rash of other well publicized abuses by business executives that were operating, and continue to operate, under the premise that making money is all that matters. These abuses continue at a seemingly unrelenting rate, and they will continue to do so as long as up-and-coming business majors are following the mantra that making money is all that matters.
For quite a few years I taught a course titled, “The Social Impact of Business.” In this course we spent considerable time examining the plethora of abuses that have resulted from businesses operating without due diligence while in focused pursuit of the bottom line. There is no shortage of well-documented cases where stakeholders (investors, communities, employees, and the environment) suffer unconscionable damage as a result. Again, Enron comes to mind.
We teach ethics in a number of our college courses. Or do we? Ethics, as a system of moral principles, is really not taught at the college level. It is “covered” at the college level but learned much earlier. Values are established primarily through non-academic experiences long before they get to Ethics 101. Teaching ethics and values in college is like studying world religions. Catholic students may learn about Judaism, but they will continue to practice Catholicism.
On occasion I teach a freshman seminar course that introduces first-semester students to the college, their chosen major, and indoctrinates them to the culture of higher education. One of the questions that I always asked them is, “Why did you decided to major in business?” The answers are almost always something like, “To make a lot of money.” These students have self-selected business as their major because they have either already developed a philosophy of “money is all that matters,” or they are well on their way.
The culture of businesses is, and has always been, the pursuit of that all-important bottom line, with social responsibility assuming the role of the beggar hoping for leftovers. Most of us, including myself, share the blame for that culture; beginning with a philosophy of charity begins at home. Each of us is, in reality, a mini-business. We pursue profits so that we can better our own lives and the lives of our loved ones. And in doing so, we all too often neglect the things that are more important than making money – things like a sense of community, family life, and quality time with loved ones. Far too many families and relationships have been ruined in the pursuit of making money to the exclusion of family values.
If charity begins at home, then we need to be more charitable to those around us. Once we can learn to do that, then it’s not a giant leap to take that philosophy to work with us and make our businesses more charitable to those around it. Making money is not all that matters. It shouldn't even be number one.