Ever since the wave of corporate scandals in 2002 led to new ethics rules, American businesses have been scrambling to comply - not always enthusiastically. Complaints about the costs of implementing new accounting rules in the federal Sarbanes-Oxley Act are legion. And to some observers, efforts at compliance often look like lip service.
But some companies - publicly held and privately owned - have been setting the pace as good corporate citizens. Beyond simply focusing on the bottom line, they care about how they do business and how they affect the customers and communities they serve.
"Most companies today are probably oriented toward legal compliance - gotta obey the rules," says Marjorie Kelly, editor of Business Ethics magazine. "Then there are others who say, 'We need to adopt ethical values in the core of how we manage this company.' The best firms are doing that."
To spotlight innovative firms with high standards, the magazine last week announced its annual ethics awards, showcasing, among others, an electronics-industry giant and an employee-owned home builder.
Computer chipmaker Intel stood out for its ethics program and experience in corporate social responsibility (CSR). Intel was recognized for leadership in integrating values throughout the firm and encouraging social responsibility among its suppliers.
The California-based company has long emphasized values such as quality, discipline, and customer orientation, but as it grew to 90,000 employees in many countries, it encountered cultural challenges.
"You've heard of issues in China, Russia, and elsewhere that we define as corruption and they might define simply as 'the way we do business,' " says Dave Stangis, Intel's director for corporate responsibility. Intel wanted to deal on the same ethical basis everywhere, so it developed ethics training programs worldwide involving every employee.