The Ethics Gap: Worldcom Opened Board Meetings with Prayer


Worldcom's founder and former CEO, Bernie Ebbers, began every board meeting with a public prayer.

"Let's open with a word of prayer," he said at the start of a 1999 meeting. "Our Father, we come to you today to thank you for these people who have supported us and been so faithful in serving this company."

 

Ebbers' religiosity offended at least one shareholder, according to an e-mail response to EthicsDaily.com's article about where Worldcom executives attend church. That individual thought Ebbers was flaunting his faith to show his honesty. The shareholder was so offended by Ebbers that he sold his Worldcom shares.

 

Others, however, invested in Worldcom because of the company's religious values, according to a Clarion-Ledger reporter.

 

After Ebbers' replacement in April 2002, the June meeting began with a discussion of proxy votes.

 

This change in corporate culture was so profound that the first paragraph in a Ledger article began: "For 13 years, every Worldcom meeting started the same way. President and Chief Executive Officer Bernie Ebbers led the audience in prayer."

 

One investor told the Ledger, "I noticed that they left off the prayer since Bernie's not here."

 

By all accounts, Ebbers was a publicly devout man, who belonged to Easthaven Baptist Church, served as a deacon and taught a Sunday School class for young married couples.

 

Bendon Ginn, Ebbers' pastor, said, "He's probably the most unassuming member of this congregation," according to the Ledger. "He comes in quietly, politely and sits in a place so as not to be easily seen."

 

Ginn said that Ebbers had a good heart.

 

A day after resigning, Ebbers told the Ledger that "the good Lord has blessed me." He said that "only by the grace of God" could he have accomplished what he did.

 

Two months later, after the Sunday morning sermon, Ebbers stood before his fellow church members and said, "I just want you to know you aren't going to church with a crook."

 

Worldcom announced last week that its internal auditors had discovered an additional $3.8 billion in accounting irregularities, pushing the total amount of accounting errors to more than $7 billion. The latest reported manipulation of accounts occurred in 1999, 2000 and 2001, significantly inflating corporate revenues when Bernie Ebbers was at the helm.

 

So far, two Worldcom execs have been charged with seven counts of securities fraud and conspiracy to commit securities fraud. And the absence of legal charges against Ebbers does not give him a clean ethical slate.

 

What the Ebbers' story does, however, is provide a backdrop to think about believers in business and the ethics gap between Sunday and the workweek.

 

Of course, the ethics gap is part of the human condition. It was an ancient reality which troubled Hebrew society. The prophet Amos denounced showy religion and economic corruption. Amos warned that God rejected solemn worship services and special offerings, in part because marketplace scales were fixed and products were inferior.

 

But having confessed that the human condition provides fertile soil for the ethics gap, can we identify factors which trigger it?

 

One trigger is "prosperity theology," which says prosperity is a sign of God's blessing. Wealth provides evidence of those who are God's favorite. If wealth represents God's favor, then poverty is God's disfavor.

 

Not surprisingly, with such a belief system those who become very wealthy have a hard time seeing ethical and legal violations as genuinely wrong because, after all, they are in divine favor. 

 

Another trigger is the "this ain't my home, I'm just passin' through" theology. Such a perspective says that heaven is really what's important. Eternal salvation is primary; earthly matters are secondary.

 

If believers have eternal security, then temporal misdeeds lack significance in the grand scheme of life. Corporate greed is a trivial matter when eternity is secure.

 

A third trigger is "hunt-n-peck" theology, a selective and literal reading of the Bible. This type of reading is often used to justify, if not sanctify, the free enterprise system. A text here, a text there, and voila! We have proof that the American economic system is God's system; and God loves the pursuit of wealth, as long as a tithe goes to the church, of course.

 

"Hunt-n-peck" preaching points out that the industrious ant obtains reward, blames poverty on slothfulness and ignores social justice.

 

With "hunt-n-peck," we find a text that supports our pre-existing worldview. Consequently, most Christians can quote the text "for the poor always ye have with you" (Jn 12:8), which we use to avoid responsibility for the impoverished. And most Christians are completely unfamiliar with "thou shalt open thine hand wide unto him [the poor]" (Deut. 15:8), which speaks to our responsibility to have structural systems to care for the poor.  

 

The ethics gap between Sunday and the workweek is as troubling for us as for Amos. We know all too well that religious observance is no guarantee of ethical practice.

 

Robert Parham is BCE's executive director.

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