The folks who think business ethics are an oxymoron are probably saying "I told you so," right about now.
Exhibit A: Drug company Turing Pharmaceuticals jacks up the price of a lifesaving drug used by AIDS and cancer patients by nearly 5,000 per cent, and then defends the move as capitalism at work.
Exhibit B: German auto maker Volkswagen AG admits that it rigged as many as 11 million diesel vehicles to fudge emission tests, apparently turning a blind eye to the environmental and health effects.
For all the talk about corporate responsibility, integrity and putting customers first, some companies are still willing to roll the ethical dice when profits are on the line.
It's bad enough that executives at Turing and Volkswagen apparently saw nothing wrong with behaviour that most reasonable people find abhorrent. They also betrayed their own corporate values.
The websites of most large companies are filled with grand commitments to sustainability, human rights, economic development and the like.
Volkswagen, for example, proudly touts what it calls "Sustainable Value Enhancement" in its 2014 annual report.
"We run our business responsibly and with a long-term perspective along the entire value chain. Everyone should benefit from this – our customers, our employees, the environment and society," the company says.
Someone at Volkswagen – likely many people – didn't buy into that.
Turing Pharmaceuticals' website says the company is "dedicated to helping patients, who often have limited or no effective treatment options."
It's not always clear what happens to these advertised corporate values when they are at odds with other strategic objectives, such as boosting revenues, market share or profits. These are, after all, the lifeblood of companies.
Are profits and corporate values treated equally? How do organizations apply their values to key decisions? What tests are used to ensure that companies actually live by their word? Are executives judged on their respect for these principles?
The Volkswagen and Turing episodes suggest that the corporate values movement may be more about marketing than fundamentally changing how business is done.
The good news is that corporate bad behaviour and naked greed don't always pay – at least not when they're exposed to widespread public shaming. Both companies are now the targets of ridicule in social and mainstream media. And they are paying a price.
Turing Phamaceuticals chief executive Martin Shkreli says he'll roll back at least part of a recent price hike on Daraprim, a 62-year drug that treats parasitic infections in patients with weakened immune systems. The company also pledged to help subsidize patients' out-of-pocket costs and provide the drug free to the uninsured.
Volkswagen CEO Martin Winterkorn, a career engineer who was poised to secure a big contract extension, was forced out this week in the face of a meltdown in the company's share price and the threat of billions of dollars in fines and other costs.
On his way out the door, Mr. Winterkorn accepted responsibility for the mess, but insisted he wasn't aware of any wrongdoing.
For Mr. Shkreli, it was never about "helping" patients.
"There's no doubt. I'm a capitalist," Mr. Shkreli proudly told CBS before bending to a price rollback. "I'm trying to create a big drug company, a successful drug company, a profitable drug company. We're trying to flourish."
In a Reuters TV interview, he defended the Daraprim price hike, to $750 (U.S.) per pill from $13.50, suggesting he'd be stupid to sell "an Aston Martin for the price of a bicycle."
Mr. Shkreli's audacity went beyond the price hike. Turing acquired Daraprim from Impax Laboratories for $90-million, a deal that made sense only if Turing could "substantially" increase the price of the drug, according to the Wall Street Journal. The newspaper said a condition of the deal was that Impax remove the drug from distribution channels before the sale to make it harder for generic companies to get samples needed to copy the drug, whose patent long ago expired.
Perhaps it's time that long-term investors start tracking how well companies live up to their own values.
A disconnect might be a warning bell.