Faith at Work, Part 3: Uncompromising Ethics

Part 1, Part 2

Jimmy Dunne is, by his own admission, a man who sees the world in black and white. In a time when shades of gray are increasingly admired, this is not always a popular perspective. But Dunne’s singular vision became a bright light for others to follow after his workplace was decimated by terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center. Dunne is Senior Managing Principal for Sandler O’Neill, an investment banking firm that  suffered the loss of one-third of its 171 member workforce on 9/11/01.

At a 2010 Princeton University event, “Faith & Work Ethics in the Executive Suite,” Dunne spoke at length with Laity Leadership Institute Senior Fellow David W. Miller about his decision making process in the first harrowing days after he learned that his partners, friends, and coworkers had been killed. Nine-and-a-half years after suffering those losses, Dunne was still emotional about them.

Counterintuitive Decision Making

He had survived the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center in 1993, but was on the golf course the morning of September 11, 2001, when he learned of the second attacks. Thinking about the needs of spouses and children left behind, he quickly decided that these grieving families would receive salaries, medical benefits, and bonuses owed to their missing loved ones.

“Then I wanted to pay all partners out,” said Dunne, “because if we didn’t lose everything, I didn’t want to lose all their money and they died too."

Sandler O’Neill covered medical expenses for deceased employees’ families for eight years and continues paying educational expenses for their children.

His financially counterintuitive decisions empowered his coworkers and won Sandler O’Neill not only the gratitude and loyalty of the survivors, but the attention of other World Trade Center businesses and national media, like 60 Minutes.

“There was a feeling that if Dunne is doing it, he knows what he’s doing,” the self-deprecating businessman said. “Dunne did not know what he was doing, at all. It was utterly reckless. But it created an esprit de coeur and that was lucky in this case. Doing what was perceived as the right thing also had tremendous value because it created a gelling thing within our organization and the next thing that happened … is that we then found unintentionally, that other companies were doing same thing,” said Dunne.

Initially Sandler O’Neill lost “a ton of money,” he said, but the firm quickly turned things around and was able to pay for the benefits he had promised.

“You don’t prepare for something like that,” Dunne said, but “you should be preparing your whole life, not necessarily for planes to fly into a building, but you should be preparing for [the fact that] bad things are going to happen.”

Playing Hard Ball with Class

As David Miller was analyzing data for his book God at Work, he noted four typical ways people go about integrating faith and work. He came up with The Integration Box to represent these four areas, and found that most people have a natural pre-disposition to one type or another: Ethics, Experience, Enrichment, and Expression. In Miller’s opinion, Jimmy Dunne’s primary manifestation is the ethical one.

Ethical actors integrate faith and work “through attention to personal virtue, business ethics, and to broader questions of social and economic justice,” wrote Miller in God at Work. “Their understanding of faith instructs them to accent ethics and righteous living as informed by religious principles and teachings. Their view of work is that it is part of God’s created order, and accordingly it must be conducted in ethical, moral, and just ways.”

Dunne’s ethical framework was formed through Catholic schools, which he attended from grade school through college at Notre Dame, and by the teaching and example of his parents. It was also influenced by his friends and partners Herman Sandler, a Russian Jew, and Christopher Quakenbush, a Protestant. Dunne said they were the smartest, most decent people he knew, and they wanted to attract people to their firm with similar values.

“In that crowd, Chris and Herman were much warmer, much nicer ...  After they were killed, after 9/11, people knew I would not ask them to do anything that I wouldn’t do,” said Dunne.

“We have certain principles. I don’t believe in the chain of command. I believe in being right. I believe there is no limit to how far you can push something if you know you are right. If something is happening that is close to the line, on the fringe, I want the third, fourth, fourteenth trader to be able to call out the head of fixed income,” said Dunne.

“That’s just the code we lived by. I think that helped us, candidly after 9/11, because what someone said about Sandler that I’ve always loved: ‘They play hard ball with class.’ I can live with that because I’m definitely going to play hardball, but you can do it in a certain way that you can attract the right kind of people,” he said.

Among the principles Dunne advocated are living beneath your means and surrounding yourself with people who share your values. Associating with the wrong people will end disastrously, Dunne said, because everyone is tempted on moral issues and “there is a limit to how much anyone can take.”

One such temptation that Dunne faced was when a representative for Bernie Madoff pitched him an investment idea in 2008, a few months before Madoff was arrested for fraud. The man told Dunne that Madoff’s firm hadn’t lost money in 19 years. When Dunne questioned him about this, he said, “We really haven’t lost money in a month.”

“I do see the world in black and white, but there are certain things that should be black and white,” said Dunne. “That was all I needed to hear.”

Black and White Reasoning in a World of Gray

People like Dunne who emphasize discerning right action and ethical behavior in the marketplace also focus on developing business practices and leadership styles that are modeled on biblical principles and figures, said Miller. But few business people who lean toward the ethical quadrant have formal training in philosophical or theological ethics. Instead they think in terms of “doing what is right and avoiding what is wrong, as interpreted through some vague conception of religious principles, teachings, and themes.”

“I don’t quite understand why being decent, or having faith or values is counter to success. I think they are completely consistent. I don’t think you can have one without the other. If you’re looking at something over a long period of time, I don’t think it’s possible to have one without the other,” said Dunne.

In God at Work, Miller said Ethical actors “recognize the complexity and difficulty of applying theological principles to modern ethical dilemma, noting that many decisions occur in the ethical gray zone.” The risk for the Dunnes of the world, he said, is that “without a commonly agreed-upon source of ethics,” doing the right thing will mean different things to different people.

 “The great peril of ethics—be it secular forms or religious-based ethics—is the pride that comes from believing that humans can without error discern God’s will or rationally discern right from wrong, good from evil, and fitting from unfitting,” Miller wrote.

But Jimmy Dunne comes across as anything but a proud man when he’s talking about himself, especially in comparison to his role models.

“I believe that in order to be really a great man, you have to have a lot of humility. And if you look at great people, men and women, they all have that,” said Dunne.

For him, Jesus’ death on the cross provides the ultimate example of both greatness and humility.

Image source via Microsoft Online. Used with permission. Post by Christine A. Scheller.

Laity Leadership Institute Senior Fellow David W. Miller is founding Director of the Princeton University Faith & Work Initiative and an Associate Research Scholar at the university's Center for the Study of Religion. Dr. Miller spent 16 years in senior executive positions in international business and finance before entering academia and receiving his M.Div.and Ph.D. in Social Ethics. He is the author of God at Work: The History and Promise of the Faith at Work Movement and writes for The Avodah Institute's Faith & Work Blog.