The Meanings of Corporate Integrity
Marvin T. Brown 1
Sometimes integrity is simply used as a substitute for the good or the right. Richard DeGeorge uses the term in this way, “Acting with integrity is the same as acting ethically or morally.”2 There is certainly something right about this definition; integrity does have a normative meaning. In fact it has several meanings, and each one can help us understand its significance, not as a substitute for ethics, but as a significant addition to other ethical standards. To understand these various meanings, we need to begin with its original meaning, which comes from the notion of “integral.” An integral represents a whole.3 Wholeness, of course, always implies the presence of parts, so integrity requires not only wholeness, but also the right relationships among the parts of a whole. To create integrity, therefore, is to integrate the parts into a whole. The relationships between the parts and the whole offer various meanings of integrity, including integrity as consistency, as relational awareness, as inclusion, and as pursing a worthwhile purpose.
Integrity as consistency. Perhaps the most common meaning of integrity is consistency. Integrity here refers to the alignment between what one does and what one says. Doing and saying should belong to the same whole. This is the way Charles Watson uses integrity in his book Managing with Integrity:
There is wholeness in what the person with integrity says and does. There is consistency between his actions and what he purports to honor. He pursues his aims along the high road and is uninterrupted and undiminished by temptations for quick or easy personal gain. He seems undisturbed by the opinions of others hold or express about him and what he honors. His upright conduct is made possible through steadfast adherence to unbending principles and standards, and his character is marked by an undaunted quest for important ends far larger than his own needs, comfort, and interests. 4
This understanding of personal integrity is certainly praiseworthy in some cases. Taken as the complete definition of integrity, however, it leaves us with a potentially dangerous use of the term. Imagine for a moment that this person with integrity is a totally unconscious individual, who is unaware of his privileges, but believes that everyone has had similar opportunities as he has had. Does his integrity here—being undisturbed by the opinions of others and practicing steadfast adherence to unbending principles and standards—help or prevent him from becoming conscious of his relationships with others in larger social and economic systems? If integrity means wholeness, and if a particular consistency prevents one from an awareness of one’s whole situation, then consistency would actually prevent the creation of integrity. To be fair to Watson, his book argues elsewhere that managers have a “duty to think” and to consider different points of view. 5 Still, his description of managerial integrity expresses a common attitude about the self: at its best the self is isolated from others, true to its own principles, and is a complete “whole.”
As most of us know from our own experience, this notion of the isolated self is less than a half-truth. We are born to live in relationships with others. The relational self exists prior to, and serves as the foundation for, expressions of the individual self. So integrity as wholeness must be defined not only by consistency but also by relational awareness.
Integrity as relational awareness. In a book on executive integrity, Suresh Srivastva and Frank Barrett write that: “The ‘wholeness’ that the word integrity refers to is the wholeness of the relationship, the wholeness of the interaction.” 6 Robert Solomon also defines integrity as relational: “`Wholeness’ means that one’s identity is not that of an isolated atom but rather the product of a larger social molecule, and that wholeness includes—rather than excludes—other people and one’s social role.”7 For individuals to have real integrity, they must be conscious of the relationships in which they live. Does that mean that we should throw out the notion of consistency? Not completely, because the self has two quite different ways of beings.
In my business ethics classes, I ask students to write out a description of who they are. They usually write down specific characteristics, such as honest, caring, hard working, and so on. I take these to refer to how they think they will respond or act in specific circumstances. They can be understood as virtues or dispositions to act in certain ways rather than others.8 Sometimes the students write out a very different set of terms. They use such terms as sons, daughters, students, parents, and so on. These are all relational terms. Instead of identifying dispositions toward action, like the first set of terms, this set identifies persons in terms of their involvements and memberships, as related persons. Integrity applies to both aspects of the self. As a relational self, integrity requires a relational awareness, a consciousness of the relations in which one participates.9 In terms of human action, integrity requires consistency in action; a consistency between what one says and what one does. So both aspects of integrity are necessary because the self is both relational and an agent. This is also true of corporations. Corporate designers also have to answer questions of identity (the who-are-we question) and questions of action (the what-should-we-do question). It is only possible to fully understand the who-we-are question when we act on the third meaning of integrity: inclusion.
Integrity as inclusion. In groups and teams, inclusion requires an openness of differences and disagreements. On the organizational level, it can also refer to listening to different voices, even disagreeable ones. The idea of integrity as inclusion has also been used to talk about including ethics and compliance programs in everyday business practices. Lynn Sharp Paine, for example, has suggested that instead of imposing compliance programs to constrain corporate behavior, managers should integrate compliance programs into their daily operations. In this way, ethics becomes included in the business.10
Kaptein and Wempe have developed a theory of corporate integrity that relies on all three meanings of integrity reviewed so far: integrity as consistency, as relational, and as inclusion.11 The consistency aspect of integrity refers to the union of words and deeds. The relational aspect refers to the multiple relationships with various stakeholders. The inclusion meaning refers to the integration of the ethical theories of virtue ethics, deontology and utilitarianism in guiding corporate decisions. When they put these three meanings of integrity together, they see corporate integrity as balancing the different claims and obligations that arise from both inside and outside the corporation.
The balancing metaphor certainly expresses the process of trying to include different interests and ethical standards, but it does not indicate the reason for the balancing act. In other words, what is the corporation pursing that gives its whole process integrity? Kaptein and Wempe’s answer is that people create businesses to be more efficient than they could be alone.[xii] Efficiency, however, is not the kind of purpose that elicits integrity. Drug dealers may be efficient, but that does not mean they should be praised for having integrity. What is missing in Kaptein and Wempe theory is the notion of a good corporate purpose. A complete understanding of integrity must include this fourth meaning—integrity as pursuing a worthwhile purpose.
Integrity as pursuing a worthwhile purpose. When we say that someone or something has integrity, it is a way of praising them. Integrity, in other words, is a virtue, not a vice. To use integrity only as a means of integrating ethical principles into business practices, or even as a balancing of different claims, largely overlooks that integrity itself is an ethical principle. Integrity, in other words, has a normative connotation that provides a guideline for right action.
The goodness implicit in the notion of integrity comes from its place in the larger language system to which it belongs. In this system, it has a positive meaning. We don’t blame people for having integrity. We praise them. And we praise them not only because they are consistent, aware of relationships, and able to include different theories and claims, but also because they are pursuing something that is worthwhile.
These various meanings of integrity are not really opposed to each other, but rather together give us a strong notion of what integrity means. When organizational structures encourage openness to differences and disagreement, treat people consistently, enter into dialogue with others about complicated issues, and pursue a worthwhile purpose, then we can have some assurance that they deserve to be praised for having integrity.
1 “The Four Meanings of Integrity” is taken from Marvin T. Brown Corporate Integrity: Rethinking Organizational Ethics and Leadership (Cambridge University Press, 2005) available in March 2005.
2 Richard T. DeGeorge Competing with Integrity in International Business (New York, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993), p.5.
3 The American heritage Dictionary of The English Language, Third Edition (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992) p. 937
4 Charles E. Watson Managing with Integrity: Insights from America’s CEOs (New York: Praeger, 1991), p. 171
5 Ibid. p. 57.
6 Suresh Srivastva and Frank J. Barrett “Foundations for Executive Integrity: Dialogue, Diversity, Development “ in Suresh Srivastva and Associates, Executive Integrity: The search for High Human Values in Organizational Life (San Francisco, Calif.: Jossey-Bass, 1989), p. 291
7 Robert C. Solomon, A Better Way to Think About Business: How Personal Integrity Leads to Corporate Success (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), p. 40.
8 I take this to be Aristotle’s understanding of the virtues. They were dispositions or habitual ways of responding to situations. The virtues, in other words, are related to actions.
9 A similar notion of the individual-in-relationships or in-community can be found in several business ethics books, such as Michael Rion The Responsible Manager: Practical Strategies for Ethical Decision Making (Amherst, Mass.: Human Resource Development Press, 1996), as well as the writings of Robert Solomon Ethics and Excellence, and Edwin Hartman, Organizational Ethics and The Good Life (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996).
10 Lynn Sharp Paine, “Managing for Organizational Integrity” Harvard Business Review, (March/April, 1994), p. 106-117. Other authors also have used corporate integrity as an integration of ethical theory or as an integration of ethics and corporate practices. See Debbie Thorne LeClair, O. C. Ferrell, John P. Fraedrich, Integrity Management: A Guide to Managing Legal and Ethical Issues in the Workplace (Tampa, Florida: University of Tampa Press, 1998, and Joseph A. Petrick and John F. Quinn’s Management Ethics: Integrity at Work (Thousand Oaks: Sage, 1997)
11 Muel Kaptein and Johan Wempe The Balanced Company: A Theory of Corporate Integrity (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002).
12 Ibid. p. 165.