Searching for the term integrity in the database of a reputable magazine such as Business Week, one will find the phrase “a man of great intellect and integrity” describing CEOs, managers, politicians, bankers, and various other people, portraying them in a highly positive manner. Intellect is definitely admired since it is the most important key to success in any industry, market or field. However, by combining intellect and integrity on the same level of importance and consideration in most fields today implies that integrity has become a basic and most essential trait that has to be reflected in the personality and behavior of individuals, especially individuals at decision-making levels. In this essay, our experts provide a detailed definition of integrity.
The Webster’s definition of the term integrity states that it is “moral soundness, probity, wholeness, completeness” and “the state of being unimpaired.” Ultimately, this is a very general definition that is as obscure as it could get, and therefore, it almost tells nothing about what a person of integrity is, except that perhaps he is a perfect person.
In practice, however, integrity tends to have different definitions, some which may be acceptable to few but not to others. The most popular definition and synonym of integrity is perhaps represented by the term “honesty.” Thus, an honest person who does not lie, trick, cheat or bluff is one who will earn a reputation for being a person of great integrity. This is because he is capable of maintaining and meeting the high and sound moral standards of the society or community in which he lives and works. A second definition applies using the standards of black and white zones. Thus, a person with integrity is one who is straightforward and who will not trick people by creating illusions in their minds. Rather, he makes clear choices and decisions without playing on words, rules or laws. A third definition is more related to the literal meaning of the term. Thus according to this definition, a person with integrity is one who sets certain rules and values and abides by them all the way through to the extent that he might sacrifice and refuse any rewards that may be gained in case these rules and values are not respected.
If defining integrity is so difficult, defining its opposite is even more difficult. A person who lacks integrity could be one who lies, cheats and acts with dishonesty. He could be a person who believes in the Machiavellian principle, “ends justify the means.” He could be a person who sells values, morals, and standards for rewards such as money, position or publicity. He could also be an opportunist who is not deterred by any moral considerations and who will seek his personal interest before anything else. A person who lacks integrity could also be a one who operates in the gray area (Dunham, CD-ROM). In other words, working or dealing with such a person will be hard because he lacks trustworthiness, respect, and morality. Such a person does not have a firm belief in morals or standards and will twist them or ignore them whenever certain interests or rewards are involved.
An application of integrity in the field of business might involve for example the canceling of a profitable project that involves serious harm to the environment. Another example, is the “Know when to say when” campaign launched by Anheuser-Busch to make customers aware of the dangers of abusing alcohol. The company spends $30 million on promotion every year, in addition to another $30 million on the awareness campaign (Kerin & Peterson, pp. 13-14).
Development of individual ethics is a complicated process, and inevitably, a person develops integrity through such a process. Individuals are influenced by their cultural and social backgrounds, as well as by organizational culture. Even though organizational culture might not propagate unethical behavior, if this culture does not restrict unethical behavior, it is likely that individual employees may behave unethically and thus act against integrity. It is a matter of policy. Employees with tendency to behave unethically examine the culture of the organization. If this culture tolerates (but not necessarily encourages) unethical behaviors, the individual will feel free to act for his self-interest. For example, managers may send higher travel bills to the company, and sales agents may report higher gas and business expenses in order to increase their income (Stewart, pp. 26-27).
To prevent such unethical behaviors, the organization needs to make it clear that it does not tolerate lack or abuse of ethics. Clear cut regulations and guidelines never force employees or managers not to act unethically, but they do create an environment where unethical behaviors are intolerable. In other words, they can create an environment that psychologically rewards and reinforces integrity in the business place. Moreover, if an organization expects integrity from its employees, it should also set guidelines for their behaviors, not only towards the organization, but also towards the community, government, other organizations, and markets (Stewart, p.27).
Some organization have become very sensitive about integrity to the extent that they are willing to deal with the issue at the roots, that is, during the recruiting and hiring process. For example, Pinkerton Service is providing businesses with a computerized program that includes an 83-question questionnaire to detect whether potential employees reflect integrity or whether they lie, cheat and reflect dishonesty. As more companies adopt such techniques, integrity becomes more important and valued in organizational culture and by individual workers (“A touch-tone truth serum, CD-ROM).
Integrity today has become a more integral part of business ethics. Consider for example social responsibility whereby an organization is not only concerned about selling its products and making profits, but also about making sure that its community will get the best services, quality and value for the money they pay. Reducing and eliminating pollution, providing aid to laid off employees, and various other factors are becoming symbols of integrity. The fact is that integrity is not only an individual trait, but also part of the organizational culture, image and behavior.
The American Heart Association for example, considers one of the most important aspects of its integrity and the integrity of its members the refusal to endorse any products related to heart surgery. The reason is that the Association has pledged since its formation in 1949 to give honest opinions and recommendations to the community without being influenced by commercial factors. Once the Association starts endorsing a product, its integrity will be lost because commercial considerations will immediately exert pressure on medical opinions and impartiality will be lost instantaneously (Moore, CD-ROM).
Personally, I believe that integrity is the capacity to be morally sound and impartial regardless what the consequences will be. Thus, it implies having the courage and the sufficient honesty and moral strength to think and act impartially and honestly regardless whether a loss or a reward is involved. I think that integrity is the ability to commit oneself to standards of morality and honesty no matter what the consequences would be.
But such a commitment is not always possible, especially in the world of business. A manager who either has to meet his deadlines and sales limits or lose his job is willing to lie to his suppliers and customers, and even perhaps to bluff them in order to avoid getting fired or demoted. Similarly, the high degree of competition in the world of business today makes integrity a very rare commodity that only very brave people actually own. Yet, in reality, the old proverb, “honesty is the best policy” remains the safest and the best. In Lebanon, we also have a proverb that goes, “the rope the liar is very short,” and thus, getting caught is inevitable. In my personal opinion, a business person should think in this manner: “Should I risk some losses but protect my integrity and reputation, or take the risk to get a short-lived reward but finally get caught and thus lose my reputation?” Perhaps many business people will not blink before they violate integrity and morality, but in reality, to be known as a person of great integrity has become just as important as being known as a person of great intellect. Integrity, therefore, is not less important than intelligence and wit.
Dunham, Richard S. “What the Republicans learned from Donorgate: New
Tricks.” Business Week, November 10, 1997: CD-ROM.
Kerin, Roger & Peterson, Robert. Strategic Marketing Problems. New Jersey:
Prentice Hall International Inc., 1995.
Moore, William. “A former chief knocks the American Heart Association.”
Business Week, December 22, 1997: CD-ROM.
“Psychological ‘honesty tests’ to measure integrity of job seekers.” Business
Week, December 22, 1997: CD-ROM.
Steward, David. Business Ethics. New York: The McGraw Hill Companies, Inc.,
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