Does the Thread Count? Yes, and So Does Honesty

08/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Mike Hegedus Media consultant, Journalism Instructor and former CNBC correspondent

And I didn't even get kissed.

I had a business deal fall apart this week and it started me thinking. Actually, "fall apart" may not be putting it quite right. It was more like bending over in the shower to pick up the soap at San Quentin and having a close encounter. At least that's what it felt like. I'm sure the other party in this doesn't feel that way. In fact, their stance is, simply put, "Don't bend over in the shower. You should know better."

The details of the near-deal aren't that important. Suffice it to say that this particular company, a bedding business that is trying to distinguish itself by claiming that thread count doesn't, is one that I've been involved with before. I approached them with an idea, we discussed it, they liked it, we discussed a budget, they said it was a "go," we had a couple of conference calls about it, and then, poof! They gave the business to someone else. Why? Cheaper.

Pissed? You bet. After a healthy exchange of over heated emails I was convinced I was in the right, wronged, when I got the last note from the head of the company in question. Look, he said, I know you're disappointed, I know you jumped through a lot of hoops, I know it seems unfair, BUT, it happens to us all the time. We go through all kinds of stuff trying to get business, and just when we think we have it, the sheet is pulled out from under us! So no hard feelings,right? It's just business.

To that I say, bend over.

But I think there's a bigger lesson here, or at least a question. What does it mean, "It's just business?" And what has this lack of moral clarity really cost us, both in business and in society in general?

I've had occasion to be thinking recently about social and market norms. Does the Golden Rule apply to our everyday lives, but not to our business ones? If I look someone in the eye and tell them we've got a deal is it different if I'm talking about a business deal than it would be if I were talking about a personal deal?

When a baseball manager is told that the organization backs him 100% and then fires him two days later is that wrong? Or is it just business? If I tell my neighbor I back him 100% in his fight with the neighborhood association, and then vote against him at the meeting, have I done him dirty? Or is it okay? If I tell someone that there will always be a place for him or her in my company, and then two months later when times get tough I lay them off, am I wrong?

Is there such a thing as "situational ethics" and morality, or are we simply kidding ourselves every day? Have we backed ourselves into a corner by convincing ourselves that shades of the truth, degrees of honesty are okay? What really caused the most recent fiscal meltdown? Is what Bernie Madoff did just the ultimate, horrible, example of "It's just business"? What's the difference between "working the system" and just being dishonest? Why do we lionize the "titans of business" and then act surprised when we find out they may not have been the most moral of men and women?

I asked a boss of mine once what he was going to tell his sons about how to act, how to handle themselves as people in their dealings with other folks. He gave me the predictable answers. Teach them to be good people, to treat all people fairly, to care for each other, to stand up for what they believe in, to always tell the truth, et al. A few months later I asked this same guy how he would explain to his sons what he had just done -- laid off people he had told there would always be a place for. I never did get an answer. Maybe it was just business. Or maybe he's sleeping on it, on his 400 count, Egyptian cotton sheets.