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Enron lapses and corporate ethics

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Today the questions are focused more on financial integrity - and the admonitions for change are coming from the highest levels. Without naming Enron, President Bush last week challenged business to set a better example.

"Through stricter accounting standards and tougher disclosure requirements, corporate America must be made more accountable to employees and shareholders and held to the highest standards of conduct," he said in his State of the Union address.

While the president had good reason to make such a plea, given the administration's close and controversial ties to Enron executives, the sentiments he was expressing resonate with many Americans.

A recent Business Week/Harris Poll, for instance, found that disenchantment with corporate America is on the rise. Perhaps the most telling finding: 79 percent of those surveyed felt the CEOs of large companies put their own interests ahead of workers and shareholders.

Corporate altruism

This is not to say that all corporations are greedy or engage in shady conduct. Experts agree most don't. At various times throughout history, some have even taken dramatic steps to show corporate altruism.

Take the Diamond Match Company. In 1910, it obtained a patent for the first nonpoisonous match. That product was so critical to the public's health that President Taft made a plea to the company to voluntarily surrender its patent rights.

Despite the enormous moneymaking potential of the idea, Diamond Match did so. It even sent employees to other matchmaking factories to show them the process.

"They surrendered that patent for the good of the whole and said, 'We are going to find another way to compete in the marketplace.' And they did," says Ms. Jennings, who with her colleague, Louis Grossman, has just written a book on longterm business survival.

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