A code of our own

Wriston, Walter B.


A code of our own

A code of our own


Trust, always a fragile commodity, has sustained an assault in America. In the past year, corporate scandals have attenuated our belief in the integrity of markets and management.

Politicians reacted to corporate malfeasance by rushing through a new law to be added to approximately 300 existing ones covering fraud and corporate crimes. A new bureaucracy was created, some actions became criminal offences rather than civil, and a new class of directors called "financial experts" was created. (Despite the fact that Enron had a least three such experts on its board, but apparently cooked the books anyway.)

History demonstrates that enacting more laws and posting more regulations does not solve the problem. Laws can help on the margin, but trust must be restored by the actions of those most directly involved -- CEOs. Many big companies already have "codes of conduct" that could be shortened and refined to produce a generic set of principles -- a voluntary code of contact that could be pledged by CEOs. PRNewswire, a business and financial information conduit, is facilitating just such an initiative, looking at the concept of the Sullivan Principles, which played a role in ending apartheid in South Africa.

Business leaders who, with few exceptions, have been silent in defending the thousands of honest managers, should regain their voice and take action: The code would signal that they are willing to embrace a higher level of accountability because it is both right and practical.

No set of principles by themselves will eliminate wrongdoing. But by embracing them, companies and their leaders signal the intention to listen to and live by what Lincoln once called "the better angels of our nature."

A monitoring system could be established and paid for by a levy on each signatory, in the same manner as audit fees are currently assessed. The monitoring service would issue a report card every year to each company and the public which might supplement the auditors' report. The code would attempt to treat transparency and other practical issues in a realistic rather than legalistic way.

This is not to suggest that laws are not the basis of a civil society. It is to point out that laws often have unintended consequences. Bureaucracies change the active verb "to compete" to the passive verb "to regulate". What they create is a backward looking system that's neither consumer nor business oriented. The regulations often have a life of their own long after their original purpose is forgotten.

The spotlight of the media has created the impression that the practices of the few are the norm of the many. Commerce must train, encourage and cultivate good people. So-called organizational ethics is dependent on personal ethics. Checks and balances, while useful, do not make good people; it is the other way around, good people produce good organizations. A corporate code of conduct might help this process.

Mr. Wriston, a former chairman and chief executive of Citicorp/Citibank, was chairman of President Reagan's Economic Policy Advisory Board and chairman of the Business Council.