May 7, 2007
The Chairman of BP recently resigned voluntarily following the revelation that he lied to the court on an insignificant detailed about his private life.
He was, without a doubt, a superb corporate leader who made BP one of the largest oil company in America. During his 10-year tenure as CEO, the stocks price rose 250 %. The board exonerated Lord Browne of any wrongdoing. By resigning instead of just retiring, he forfeited approximately $30 million that he would have received in the retirement package. His insignificant lie had a very significant financial consequence.
Where is the line between our private and public life? Where is the line between private morality and public ethics?
France and the rest of Continental Europe always made a clear distinction between them. In yesterday’s French Presidential election, the problematic private lives of both Nicholas Sarkozy and Segolène Royal played an insignificant role in voter’s decisions.
Journalists were aware, for a long time, that former French President Francois Mitterand had extra-matrimonial relationship. Yet, for years, they did not make mention of it in the press. They were of the understanding that this was a private affair and not the concern of the public. When, finally the weekly Paris Match made the revelation that President Mitterand had a child from that relationship, he went on National TV and said: “Yes, I have a daughter, so what?“
The Anglo-Saxon world (maybe influenced by Puritanism) sees things differently, on the premise that one cannot behave immorally in his or her private life and morally in public life. As Rabbi Ezra Finkelstein, our outside Ethics Advisor, said in one of our Ethics Committee meeting: “We can not behave in one way at home and in a different way at work. We are not built that way. We have a uniform character and we generally exhibit at work that which we do elsewhere. If one is manifestly immoral in one aspect of his life, there will be reason to suspect his moral judgment.”
David Gebler, the president of Working Values, a business ethics and training company in Massachusetts, believes that the line between private behavior and public conduct is growing increasingly blurry.
A survey by the Society of Human Resource and Management found that 80% of the respondents believed that organizations should take into account personal ethics and off-the job behavior when making hiring and promotion decisions.
As John Adams said:
“Public virtue cannot exist in a nation without private virtue and public virtue is the only foundation of republics.”