Read Any Good Business Ethics Books?
Executives seeking counsel on how to restore citizens' trust in Corporate America won't find much help at the local bookstore. A survey of business-book publishers by BusinessWeek Online found few titles in the area of business ethics. Nor does there appear to be any rush to offer new titles that would help managers understand and respond to the crisis of confidence stemming from the collapse of Enron, Arthur Andersen, Global Crossing, and WorldCom.
However, there is a smattering of cautious interest. Several publishers say they might like to publish such a volume -- particularly if it were authored by a public figure whose own reputation is above reproach.
"We're looking at a number of proposals in that area even as we speak," says Jeffrey W. Brown, who heads business publishing at John Wiley & Sons. "The question is: What would add real value to the discussion and have some staying power?" Warner Books Executive Editor Rick Wolff reports that he has received a few pitches about such books, but he's wary of "Sunday sermons" or "monologues about doing the right thing."
"Ethics books have never been well-received in the marketplace," explains HarperBusiness Executive Editor Dave Conti. "And it's still too soon. But in time, publishers will see that there's a need. A new generation of managers will face a world in which everyone is watching them. They will need something that will help them operate in a new climate of greater transparency."
At least two publishers don't think it's too soon. Early next year, Simon & Schuster will publish The 18 Indispensable Laws of Corporate Reputation: Managing Your Most Valuable Asset, by Ron Alsop, reports Free Press Senior Editor Fred W. Hills, who adds that he's continuing to look for other books that have just the right slant.
WANTED: PARAGONS OF VIRTUE.
And last February, Harvard Business School Press published Leading Quietly: An Unorthodox Guide to Doing the Right Thing, by HBS professor Joseph L. Badaracco Jr. (see the accompanying excerpt from Leading Quietly's introduction) The volume offers midlevel managers eight strategies for making decisions where the right choice is not obvious.
Carol Franco, director of HBS Press, suggests that several of its leadership titles -- including Jeffrey Garten's forthcoming The Politics of Fortune: A New Agenda for Business Leaders -- also consider the ins-and-outs of proper stewardship. (Garten, dean of Yale University's School of Management, is a columnist for BusinessWeek.)
However useful these books might be, they're not written by the kind of high-profile personalities who command attention. Most of the editors surveyed said having a big name with a sterling reputation would be key for such a venture to be successful. Reflects Brown: "There's not a lot of depth on the bench for paragons of virtue right now."
Jack McKeown, president and CEO of Perseus Book Group, thinks "an elder statesman of business could write a credible manifesto. It should say that there are times when you have to put your career at risk to make the right choice."
Conti thinks former Securities & Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt, who served as president of the American Stock Exchange before going into government, could address the questions facing business managers. In fact, Levitt will hit the bookstores in the first week of October with Take On the Street: What Wall Street and Corporate America Don't Want You to Know and What You Can Do to Fight Back, published by Random House. But the book (written with BusinessWeek Deputy Washington Bureau Chief Paula Dwyer) is geared more toward individual investors than business execs.
Several new volumes also offer help to those trying to sort through the balance sheets or reform corporate reporting. These include:
How Companies Lie: Why Enron Is Just the Tip of the Iceberg, by A. Larry Elliott and Richard J. Schroth (Crown Business, $18.95). An investor's guide to "corporate smoke and mirrors.
The Financial Numbers Game: Detecting Creative Accounting Practices by accounting professors Charles W. Mulford and Eugene E. Comiskey (Wiley, $39.95) and
Financial Shenanigans: How to Detect Accounting Gimmicks & Fraud in Financial Reports by Howard Schilit (McGraw-Hill, $27.95). Both are reference guides for analyzing financial statements.
Building Public Trust: The Future of Corporate Reporting, by PricewaterhouseCoopers CEO Samuel A. DiPiazza Jr. and former Harvard Business School prof Robert G. Eccles (Wiley, $24.95). It offers a blueprint for greater corporate transparency.
What about Corporate America, however? Wolff thinks the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, might fit the bill -- "someone so wealthy that he is above the fray. It needs to be someone with the credibility to address the issue of lost trust, someone able to step back and consider what we can learn from the crises at hand."
Of course, anyone who steps forward is, in essence, inviting scrutiny. Any volunteers?
By Hardy Green in New York
Edited by Douglas Harbrecht