Every April 15th Major League Baseball celebrates Jackie Robinson Day. It’s a very, very well-deserved commemoration of Robinson’s heroic efforts as the first black man to play baseball in the modern era. Few people could have done what Jackie Robinson did: post outstanding numbers on the field, while showing such grace on and off of it. Doing so despite the racial taunts and indignities he suffered.
So profound was his impact on race relations in America that Martin Luther King, Jr. later noted that Robinson and the African-American Dodgers who followed him made King’s own work much easier.
For those of us who work in business ethics and compliance, we should stop today and think about Jackie Robinson, too, and also Branch Rickey.
Rickey’s name is largely forgotten by those outside of baseball, but he was the President of the Brooklyn Dodgers and the man who decided it was time baseball’s color barrier came down.
Why is he so important to us in ethics and compliance? Because in this era of profound distrust of business, in this time in which business ethics is perceived by so many to be an oxymoron, business must remind itself that business ethics and compliance can be about more than not doing wrong. It can be about using your business to do something right, and that doing the right thing can even be profitable.
Rickey was the rare individual who saw a wrong, couldn’t abide it, was in a position to change things and did. And while today hiring Jackie Robinson seems like an easy thing, few realize how much thought and work went into it.
Back in 1947 there were real questions about whether this Noble Experiment, as Rickey referred to it, would be a success. Would white players share a field – or locker rooms and showers – with black players? And would black players help the struggling Dodgers sell more tickets, or would the African-American fans that followed them keep white fans away?
Today, it’s hard to believe the questions were even asked. But in 1947 the answers were far from clear.
Rickey had the courage to take the business risk, and the foresight to assess all the risks that the Dodgers and Robinson would face. And, even though many counseled him not to go ahead, he did. And, in so doing, he changed the fate of thousands of black athletes – African-Americans as well as players from the Caribbean and South America. He also changed the minds of millions of American, and turned a struggling Dodgers franchise into a significantly more successful one.
Today, business needs to look back at what Branch Rickey did and examine how it goes about its business. Too often ethics questions are left for ethicists to decide, or dismissed as being esoteric questions or too expensive: we can’t afford to keep our hands too clean. Or, business waits for an incident to occur, new legislation to come out, and then rushes frantically to catch up to the new demands on it.
And, too often ethical considerations are dismissed because “we’ve always done business that way” or the equally foolish rationalization “everyone is doing it.”
They are bad answers both morally and from a business perspective. The history of corporate American is one of businesses being caught by surprise by public expectations. Child labor was fine for a long time, but the public finally said enough. Sixty hour work weeks were fine, and then they weren’t. The same can be said of paying bribes to win business, backdating of stock options, aggressively marketing subprime mortgages, and, most recently, offshore corporations.
It’s time for business to stop assuming that the moral equation stays constant, when instead moral standards keep rising. Just as business plans for changes in the economy, commodity costs, and globalization, so too must it start considering how the moral climate is changing around it.
Branch Rickey knew that, and laid the groundwork for Jackie Robinson to step onto a baseball diamond, prove that African-Americans could stand as equals and that America could be a better place for all its citizens.
Now it is time for business leaders to revisit its feelings about ethics, emulate Rickey’s vision and insight, and take business to a better place.
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