Putting Ethics Into Business

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Published:
August 6, 2019

Annetta Gibson, co-author of a new textbook that integrates a Christian worldview with business ethics, talks about how the book came to be and how it relates to her job training church treasurers for the General Conference.

You have recently published a book called Honorable in Business: Business Ethics from a Christian Perspective. How did this book come to be? Daniel Augsburger, well-loved professor at Andrews University for many decades who died in 2004, is your co-author on this book. Were you working on it together before he died? How did this co-authorship work?

I would be happy to tell you the story.

When I came to Andrews University to teach in the School of Business in 1992, I was introduced to Daniel Augsburger, who was teaching the business ethics class (RELT390). The Dean of the Business School at the time suggested that Dr. Augsburger and I team-teach the class, since my doctoral dissertation had dealt with accounting ethics. So Dr. Augsburger and I began a classroom relationship — initially with me sitting in his class, listening to how he taught it, and then the two of us team-teaching the class. At first, Dr. Augsburger was team leader but eventually, as his health failed in 2002-2003, I led.

By 1998 or 1999 we knew that we needed to write a textbook for the class ourselves, as there was nothing in the market that combined business, ethics, and scripture, thus being the kind of textbook that we wanted to use. Most business ethics books approach business ethics from a philosophical perspective (not theological), or if they choose to take a theological approach, they are “light” on the business ethics side (almost a pop-culture ethics perspective). So we glibly said to each other: “Let’s write our own textbook!” We had no idea of what that would involve!

I took a nine-month sabbatical in the fall of 2000 (immediately after my wedding), and went to Missouri where my husband was at that time. This gave me an opportunity to spend time at the University of Missouri doing research on the business part of the proposed textbook, while Dr. Augsburger began to put his theological framework notes into the computer (converting his hand-written notes on yellow note pads). I consider that to be providential, as not long after I returned to campus in May 2001, his health began to fail. Fortunately because of the work we did in 2000-2001, we had his teaching notes for the theological basis for the class in hard copy, along with many business examples/perspectives that I had obtained while doing research in Columbia.

We used the first draft of the book in class in the spring of 2002. The initial draft was clearly written by two people. The first part of the book included the theological framework; the second part contained the business chapters with appropriate stories, illustrations, and text as I had developed them while in Missouri. The summer of 2002 we worked together to frame the book as a “whole” (rather than two separate pieces) around four general themes (now discarded) and did considerable editing. By the spring of 2003, Dr. Augsburger’s role was minimal, due to his health. He passed away in February 2004 at the age of 83. 

Conversations with various publishing acquisition editors steered me in the direction of writing an integrated book — in other words, integrating the theological framework throughout the book, not just providing it to the reader at the beginning. (Most business ethics books offer a philosophical basis in the first chapter, and then the “business” part of the book follows separately.) The acquisition editors noted that no one had written an integrated book, and if I could do that, I would bring something unique to the marketplace. Once I seriously began to try to integrate the theology, I figured out why no one had done it before!

I used what Dr. Augsburger and I had put together while I taught RELT390 (Christian Business Ethics) at Andrews alone from 2004-2013 — updating the business sections and, depending on the year, either using the theological framework as a separate handout, or making attempts in class lectures to integrate the concepts.

In the fall of 2013, after I retired from full-time teaching at Andrews, I spent a semester at the Center for Christian Bio-Ethics at Loma Linda University, drowning myself in the company of the ethicists there, particularly Roy Branson and Jerry Winslow. What I was looking for was inspiration to re-work the integration of theology and business, as well as work under ethicists and theologians who might assure me that what I was choosing (and updating) from Dr. Augsburger’s notes and from my own reading was theologically sound, since I am an accountant rather than a theologian.

I did not want to lose Dr. Augsburger’s “voice” in the book, even though he had passed away. The theological framework is clearly his, and accordingly I did not want to publish the book without his contribution being recognized as co-author. The time in Loma Linda forced me to re-think the framework (ultimately developing the one used in the published book) and focus on my intended audience.

Upon returning to Michigan from California in time for spring semester 2014, I continued teaching RELT390 at the School of Business. I taught the class from 2014 through 2019 (skipping 2016, when the class did not fill due to other factors), using the material I was putting together, and updating it annually for new ethical issues in business, as well as correcting any errors as I worked toward a final manuscript to submit for publication.

In the meantime, I sent the manuscript to various publishers, which meant that it was “reviewed” not only by official reviewers, but also by 50+ students during those years. The comments from the reviewers and students were extremely helpful in finalizing the manuscript, which was submitted to Wipf and Stock in July 2018.

Who is the intended audience for this book?

Dr. Augsburger and I always intended the book to be for undergraduate students at Christian colleges and universities, but we hoped that a secondary audience would be business people who were on the job, but struggling with challenges of how to be Christians in the business world.

Where does the title come from?

The title of the book comes from a friend of mine who is the Dean of the Business School at Yeshiva University. In one of his articles, he mentioned that the Babylonian Talmud suggests that the first question one will be asked in heaven is: “Were you honorable in business?”

The book has 11 chapters, and all titles are questions: What Resources Are Free For Business Use?; What If My Product Becomes Dangerous?; What If I See Something Wrong?, and so on. Each chapter begins with a story from business that ties to the chapter’s topic. The last chapter asks: “What Difference Does a Christian Make?”

What is the most important lesson you are trying to teach readers with this book?

I think it would be difficult to improve on the blurb on the back cover, as it is fairly comprehensive, so I will quote it here:

“How can one be a Christian in the world of business, not just on the weekend? How can one be honorable in business? Through the integration of the Christian worldview and business ethics, this book provides Christians with a mental framework with which to answer these important questions.

“Beginning with Genesis as the foundation for the Christian’s worldview and the Ten Commandments as the outline for the Christian’s ethical obligations, the authors develop principles upon which ethical choices can be made, even when working in a primarily non-Christian-oriented business environment. The book is designed to be helpful both to those beginning their career in business and those already employed in business who struggle with how to engage in today’s business environment while maintaining their commitment to God’s vision for life to be both meaningful and honorable.

“Topics of business ethics such as employee rights, discrimination, technology and privacy, insider trading and accounting fraud, and the special challenges of working internationally are covered. The added value this book brings to these discussions lies in its serious consideration of the Christian worldview as foundational to ethical decision-making in everyday areas of business.”

I was most excited and pleased with the affirmation provided by Marianne M. Jennings (author of several business ethics textbooks which I have used over the years and The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapsewhich is about the business frauds of the early 2000s) which is included on the back cover of Honorable in Business.

Dr. Jennings said: “Ethics is best learned through quotes and stories, followed by thoughtful discussion and analysis. Here is a book that used this pattern to teach us powerful lessons and insights. It is about time that someone brought God, faith, and the Ten Commandments into the discussion of business ethics. Instructive and inspirational.”

So the book tells stories to illustrate its points? Are they stories from your own experiences?

Yes, there are lots of stories. They are not my own experiences, as so much of what I do deals with confidential situations (or at least confidential at the moment).

What feedback have you received on the book so far?

Interestingly, after W&S released the book in February 2019, I was showing it to a friend who attends a church in Benton Harbor, Michigan, (just about 13 miles north of Andrews University). This friend, unknown to me, was coaching budding entrepreneurs in his Benton Harbor church in order to assist with their launch of small businesses. He stated that Honorable in Business was exactly what he needed for his entrepreneurs! So my first book signing was for 12 copies my friend purchased for use with adults just getting into business in Benton Harbor. I think Dr. Augsburger would have been very pleased! 

In your current job, you train Adventist Church treasurers around the world. This seems like a crucial job and a very important responsibility. What happens if you don't do your job well? What have you learned while training people? How has this work framed the writing of this book?

The book arose from classroom needs (as noted above) rather than from training currently working financial officers, which I have been doing for the last eight years or so. But the primary interest I’ve seen so far (remembering that the book just came out in February 2019 so its reception in classrooms is yet to be determined) has been from Adventist organizations that want to use the book for their financial personnel. ADRA, Adventist Risk Management, and various church Divisions have all expressed interest. 

That ties in with seminars that I have provided in my work as the Assistant to the General Conference treasurer for treasurer training. I am very pleased about that expressed interest. I was also pleased with the interest I saw in the book at “Beyond the Bottom Line” in March 2019 among the NAD treasurers and financial personnel who were in attendance in Orlando.

Obviously, if I don’t do my job well in training ethical financial leaders, the church will suffer both organizationally and individually. Research has shown that when unethical actions occur in business, many shrug and say “Well, it’s just business.” But when unethical actions occur in religious organizations, many equate the organization’s actions with God, since the organization states that it is representing God.

Thus, unethical actions in religious organizations have a much greater impact on people’s lives and their trust in both God and in the organization itself, than would be true of unethical actions in a secular organization. That very fact makes leadership training within the church more crucial and more important than would be true of similar training options outside of the church. Knowing this keeps me serious and focused on the task I have been entrusted with.

With the strong focus on religion in the United States in recent years, is the interested audience for your book larger than it might have been previously? Are more businesspeople truly interested in behaving ethically?

That’s a good question. I think many people are interested in businesspeople behaving ethically! Whether businesspeople are interested in behaving ethically remains an open question! Like much in the U.S., there is a divide, and it seems to me that the divide is becoming wider. Those who want to bring ethics into business are speaking up and expressing their concerns, more than in the past. That’s good. On the other hand, those who wish to make money, ethically or unethically, are also moving forward with their own agenda, irrespective of calls for ethical business actions.

How long did you work on this book? Now that it's finished, what is your next big project?

I worked from 2000-2019 on the book. It certainly took much longer than either Dr. Augsburger or myself would have ever imagined!

Now I dream of writing a book on the history of the Seventh-day Adventist church from a financial perspective, particularly during the very difficult years from 1888-1905. We’ll see — but that is a dream.

Annetta Gibson is assistant to the General Conference treasurer for treasurer training. She is professor emerita at Andrews University and served as dean of the School of Business (1995-2006) and the Hasso Endowed Chair for business ethics (2006-2013) at Andrews University.

 

Alita Byrd is interviews editor for Spectrum.

Photos courtesy of Annetta Gibson and Wipf & Stock Publishers.

 

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