Ethics @ WORK: ‘Light unto the nations’?

Study finds Israelis unconventional and cliquey in the workplace.

An recent research paper by an internationally known expert on business ethics, Prof. Mark Schwartz of Toronto’s York University, attempts to compare the business-ethics culture in Israel to that found in other countries. The unpublished study, entitled “The State of Business Ethics in Israel: A ‘Light Unto the Nations’?” combines a review of past research and new interviews with Israeli business leaders.
To someone who has been following the local ethics scene for some time, it is evident reading the paper that Israel has made great strides in ethical standards. Just a generation ago Israel was a backward nation in many of the areas mentioned in the paper; for example, nepotism, concern for customers, corruption and curbing sexual harassment. Today Israel is on a respectable international level in these areas, although there is certainly room for improvement.
Most of the paper, including both the primary and secondary sources, is based on surveys and interviews. These sources of data need to be used with caution; they tell us about people’s perceptions about absolute and relative levels, as opposed to the actual business conduct. Sometimes perceptions can be self-reinforcing.
What most interests me about such comparisons is not the simple quantitative comparison – who is higher and who is lower – but rather the qualitative differences in business culture that engender the differences in conduct.
One fascinating survey result referred to by Schwartz is the summary of a study by Dutch sociologist Geert Hofstede, who found that: Israel is considered a low “power distance culture” (i.e., Israelis have a lower level of acceptance of unequal power); Israelis are moderately “individualistic” (i.e., Israelis are more willing to speak one’s mind); moderately “feminine” (i.e., social-gender roles overlap); and with a strong “uncertainty avoidance culture” (an emotional need for rules).
Business ethics aside, I think these characteristics go far in explaining the success of our “start-up nation” in innovation. If you want to do something that no one has ever done, you will probably not succeed if you want to control it from the top down (need low-power distance), by having people conform (need individuality).
Hofstede’s last finding doesn’t conform with the all the other interviewees and with my own experience: that on the contrary, Israelis have an impatience for rules and a strong urge to improvise, which tend to reinforce a culture of innovation.
Another factor Schwartz found mentioned frequently is the importance of connections. Again, this is a qualitative factor. On the one hand, it can create problems that were perceived in the study, such as favoritism toward friends, sharing of secrets (one interviewee described Israel as a “yenta society”), or a reluctance to blow the whistle (though to be fair we must recall that whistle-blowers are not held in high esteem anywhere in the world).
On the other hand, it cultivates positive elements also mentioned, like group loyalty, a reluctance to jump ship or betray colleagues, and long-term relationships that, as Schwartz states, make “unethical reputations more difficult to hide.”
One salient issue unearthed by the study that I strongly identify with was the very low level of consumer activism in Israel. Schwartz suggests, based on his interviews, that “Israeli customers in general do not care about product safety when compared with elsewhere.” One of the reasons that firms do not have as great a customer mentality as in some other countries is that the consumer is just not as demanding. (I do think the level of responsiveness has gone through the roof in recent years.)
It is always instructive to compare ourselves to others and to our pastselves, to examine our strengths and weaknesses and to explore room forimprovement. Schwartz’s study provides a thoughtful review of Israel’sbusiness-ethics culture, which can be helpful in stimulating such acomparison.
Asher Meir is research director atthe Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute inthe Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).