How About a Golden Rule Club for CEOs?

By Rev. Allen Brill

Who would object to the Golden Rule? Nearly every religious tradition has a version of it. One might think it's an almost universal ethical guideline for individuals and organizations.

How closely does the business sector in our nation follow it? Well, the average American corporate CEO makes 475 times as much as the average worker in his company. This compares to Germany and Japan where executives make only 13 times and 11 times as much, respectively. CEOs who lay off workers or cut benefits are often rewarded with big increases in their salaries and benefits.

Forbes reports that H. Lee Scott, the CEO of Wal-Mart, received more than $11 million in compensation in 2003 and owned more than $30 million in Wal-Mart stock. Meanwhile, his fellow Wal-Mart employees must pay 35 cents for a cup of coffee in the break room.

It doesn't sound much like "do unto others" to me. Can an executive who lays off employees and outsources their jobs abroad while drawing tens of millions in compensation be paying any heed to this almost universal ethical value?

Most company executives oppose any effort by the government or even stockholders to limit their compensation to more reasonable levels. Their creed seems to be that of the fictional Gordon Gecko who proclaimed in the movie Wall Street that, "Greed is good."

Maybe it's time for corporate executives who do feel a twinge of conscience about imposing a ruthless bottom line mentality on their employees while their board of directors pampers them to form and join a "Golden Rule Club." Members might reduce their salaries to 15 times that of their lowest paid employee to match executive/worker pay differentials in other advanced nations. They might give themselves the same health care plan as their company's employee with the least (or no) health benefits. They could renounce any future claim to a "golden parachute" or deferred compensation should they choose to lay off any employees or outsource any jobs to domestic or foreign contractors.

None of these things would affect the company's competitiveness or the stockholders' dividends or stock value. In fact, they might just improve all three of those measures of an executive's success.

It may be too much to ask the heads of businesses to follow the Golden Rule when they're at work. Perhaps we could at least convince our company execs to live by a rule that:

We do unto ourselves what we do unto others.

It should be less anathema to them than government regulation that forces them to be ethical and responsible. And it just might do them some good as well. In the Christian tradition, somebody said something once about how difficult it was for camels to pass through the eye of a needle. Joining the "Golden Rule Club" might make the humps of America's CEOs a little smaller.

Rev. Allen H. Brill is a Lutheran pastor (ELCA) and member of the bar in South Carolina and co-founder of "Why Not, South Carolina?", an organization supporting the work of South Carolina progressives. Email

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