At What Cost?

There’s a joke being circulated among those of us d’un certain age, showing how by today’s standards, anyone over age 35 should rightfully be dead. After all, our mothers smoked and drank while they were pregnant, we rode bikes without wearing helmets, rode in cars without seat belts or car seats, climbed out of wooden-slatted cribs, and played outdoors unsupervised, all day, until the five o’clock whistle blew, the church bells chimed, or the streetlights came on.

We had to try out for the team or the cheerleading squad, and not everyone made the cut. So we learned to cope with disappointment and channel our energies toward our better strengths. And when we got in trouble for breaking the rules in school, Mom and Dad grounded us, they didn’t sue the teacher. You worked hard for what you wanted, but you didn’t always get it.

Guess what? We’re not all dead. And we’re not all psychologically damaged because we had to obey the rules and learn how to deal with a few knocks.

Not that everything was wonderful, of course. Life in the mid-20th century was pretty good if you were a white male, and happy to conform to the established norms—but it could be stifling, restrictive, or outright discriminatory for anyone else. But many people say it was a more honest time; a time when people took responsibility for their own actions and cared about doing the right thing.

But was there a greater sense of ethics, or were the transgressions just covered up better?

David Callahan, author of The Cheating Culture, says there is a difference and that society has turned into such a winner-take-all game that it no longer matters how you play as long as you win. One also could argue that the growth of stringently orthodox religious institutions is a reaction to a society perceived as lacking ethics or standards. And when the evening news is filled with corporate malfeasance and governmental patronage, one does wonder what happened to our collective sense of right and wrong.

As the news of the GIA grading scandal hits the front pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, we as an industry are bracing for yet more bad publicity and more chinks in our collective reputation. But along with damage control and figuring out who, what, when, how much, and at what cost, we also should be asking, “Why?”

Why did those involved feel the need to cheat? What was at stake, what would have been lost, who would have been branded a loser if they had stopped and said, no, that’s wrong, I’m not going to do it. Why wasn’t doing it the right way enough? What is making us as a society so unsatisfied, so restless, always wanting more—and often willing to cast aside ethics, standards, and old beliefs in right or wrong to get it?

William Shakespeare said, “He who steals my purse steals nothing, but he who steals my name steals everything.”

Poor William is probably spinning in his grave. Incidents like the Enron/Worldcom/Tyco debacles, the appointment of Michael Brown to head FEMA—and yes, even the GIA scandal—are clearly all about the purse. The name has ceased to matter as anything more than a place to hang a “for sale” sign.

Capitalism is dependent on man’s fundamental desire to have more, do more, and be more. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, since, without it, we probably would still be back in the caves. But is there not a difference between stretching to achieve and grow versus greed gone amok?

Why would someone want a falsified diamond grade knowing it could be easily challenged and, if proven wrong, mean that no one would trust him again?

One might understand some customers asking for small privileges like faster turnaround time from a lab not known for overnight service, but there’s a big difference between moving to the head of the line at the service window and getting a puffed-up grade.

Why would a lab grader be willing to risk not only a current job but also future employment for money? Does this industry pay its workers so poorly that they need to augment their income just to survive? Or are they infected by the demands of a winner-take-all society, anxious to have what the privileged classes have, at whatever the cost?

And are we—in the midst of whatever head-shaking or hand-wringing we do about GIA’s scandal—ready to vow to always choose what is right in our own lives and our own businesses, whatever the cost?