February 23, 2006

Krista's Journal: On the Role of Ethics in the Marketplace

February 23, 2006

People sometimes ask me where we find all the fascinating voices for Speaking of Faith. My answer is: The world is brimming with people living with religious tradition and insights in fascinating ways. They're not necessarily famous, but they often influence their sphere of life in remarkable ways. I chanced across Indian-born businessman and educator Prabhu Guptara when he was at the University of Minnesota giving a presentation about what he calls "the gods of business." He is a practicing Hindu, and a self-described "follower of Jesus," who has lived and worked around the world. He now designs executive and organizational development programs at UBS in Switzerland, one of the world's most influential banks.

Prabhu Guptara possesses an instructive and edifying overview of the universe of global business, and he has acquired his broad vision by way of personal curiosity and passion. Around the world, he has studied how the major traditions of belief — Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Atheism — interact, or fail to interact, with the culture of business. He engages his dual concerns for business success and social justice, and he encourages that dual engagement in others.

Prabhu Guptara has a gift, I think, for naming truths that are elemental, yet rarely discussed. For example, that people can be ethical in their personal beliefs and less than moral at work, all in the name of business. There is a transnational, ecumenical human tendency to set private ethics and religious values aside in the marketplace. In a highly mobile, individualistic society like 21st century America, this creates corporate citizens with no binding sense of accountability. In previous generations, individual conscience served in most cases as adequate enforcement of right and wrong at work as in life. But we have now raised a generation of leaders who seem to require "policing" from the outside. This insight illuminates the human roots of an Enron or Tyco scandal more incisively, for me, than many more complicated analyses.

Guptara also brings the ethical complexity of the global economy closer to earth. I despair when I hear statistics about misery and injustice spawned by the global economy — from vast inequities in the distribution of wealth to environmental degradation. Guptara has these statistics at his disposal too, and is passionately concerned about misery and injustice. But he doesn't regret the foundation of business itself: the earning of money through labor and creativity. After all, he works for one of the world's largest banks.

On the other hand, he simply does not accept the global economy's systemic inequities and imbalances. Even as late as 50 years ago, he points out, there were real limits to the world's resources and our ability to distribute them. That is no longer the case. Poverty and hunger in the world that were once a tragedy, he says, are now an obscenity. Today we have it collectively in our power to eliminate those problems. Guptara sees this as a call to action, not cause for despair. In the course of our conversation, he makes some possibilities for systemic change transparent. And he tells helpful, heartening stories of people who have taken on the challenge of ethics in the global economy and made a substantive difference. I need to hear such stories alongside the necessary litanies of tragic facts.

Prabhu Guptara's calm, learned presence was a pleasure, even via audio technology that spanned St. Paul and Zurich. He calls globalization "the daughter of technology." Like technology, it carries staggering risks and wondrous possibilities. This conversation made the global economy feel more real to me, and more ethically manageable. But Guptara ended our conversation with a sobering caution, that American business culture will almost inevitably become the shape of the future in countries around the world. If we don't want to export the ways of Enron, we must all exercise conscience at work, whether we find it in religious or other kinds of ethical sources. And we must dare to influence the global economy through our own immediate circles of work and industry.

Share Episode

Shortened URL

Voices on the Radio

is Director of Executive and Organizational Development at the Wolfsberg Centre, a subsidiary of UBS of Switzerland. He writes and lectures about issues at the intersection of business practices, religious worldviews, and ethics.