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Getting Rid of Greed: Choosing Principle over Profit

By Mark S. Putnam


Ask anyone the question, "Are you greedy?" and most will deny it. Then follow-up with, "Would you break the rules if it benefited you financially?" And the answer might be, "How much money are we talking about?" Few people identify themselves as "greedy" but when it comes to money versus principles, we like to run the numbers first. Pick an ethical scandal from the news and money will be at the core. To get a handle on business ethics and greed, we need to understand what "greed" is and who the players are.

So, what does a greedy person look like? You probably imagine a scrooge character in a tuxedo sitting atop a pile of money throwing it in the air. Or maybe you picture high profile characters like Ivan Boesky or Jeff Skilling. Although they may typify unethical people motivated by money, the real problem of greed in business is more widespread. In fact, being tempted to do something unethical for financial gain is nothing new for any employee.

In discussing greed, there is often a disconnect between the notion of greed and who the real players are. It's easy to point the finger at "greedy" executives or celebrities embroiled in scandal and overlook the thousands of employees who succumb to greed each day and find themselves unemployed as a result. The problem of greed is not just limited to the wealthy but is a human weakness.

Greed is defined as, "An overwhelming desire to have more of something such as money than is actually needed." Most people don't struggle with overwhelming desire to sit atop a pile of money, they simply want to a drive nicer car, get the kids braces, and reduce the financial stress of life. For others, acquiring money may not be a matter of greed but of necessity to keep food on the table. To address the issue of greed in business we need to focus on a practical discussion of principles versus profit.

At what point can your principles be exchanged for profit? Whether or not you will do something unethical should not depend on your financial gain. Doing so completely undermines your reason for having principles in the first place. The struggle to avoid the temptation of greed and stand on principle can be won if you take the following steps:

First, you must unequivocally nail down your ethical principles for dealing with money. You must say, "I will not let money override my ethical principles." Period. Make it your mantra. Make it your core philosophy for business. Resolve in your heart that you would rather lose your job than your integrity.

Second, you need to come to terms with what is most important in your life. The Greek philosopher Epicurus said, "Wealth consists not in having great possessions, but in having few wants." Parents teach their children the difference between wants and needs. At first, the child says he "needs" everything (toys, candy, etc.). After a while the child realizes that most of the things he says he "needs" are actually "wants." So it is with adults. Not having a balanced perspective on our wants and needs gives us a skewed perception of the material world. When you need something bad enough you are likely to do anything to get it, which is a recipe for ethical disaster. If you live your life in a frantic quest for your "wants" you will never be satisfied. You will miss out on all that life has to offer, and you will make mistakes along the way. Don't let your wants drive your ethical decisions.

Third, you need a reality check about the gains that a greed-centered attitude will get you. At best, you may have some short-term, superficial benefit; but in the long run you will lose. Customers will go elsewhere. Honest employees will choose to work for someone else. In the end, operating by profit over principle will backfire and set you back further than if you chose the high road in the first place.

It doesn't have to be a choice between principles or profits. You can have both if you maintain a proper perspective regarding money and the value of your ethical principles. Your goal should not be to simply avoid greed but to stand by your core values despite the cost. Now, what's that worth?

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