The Wall Street Journal Test

February 5, 2007 - Get free updates of new posts here

I was talking to my friend Ankur Luthra from Summit Partners a month or two ago about ethics.

I asked him how do you know if what you are doing is ethical or not. He gave me a great answer I just had to share.

How would you feel if what you did was written about in the front page of the Wall Street Journal?

This really gave me an amazing framework to think about many decisions. Think about it…

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30 responses to “The Wall Street Journal Test

  1. AdamD Reply

    That’s a great way to think about it. It’s sort of similar to assuming every email will be public. It makes you think twice about what you’re writing or doing.

  2. Ankur Reply

    Wow, a mention on Noah’s blog? My life is now complete! For the record, I didn’t come up with that line, just heard a version of it many years ago and it stuck.

  3. Daniel Elmore Reply

    I still stick by the golden rule: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. The Wall Street Journal test brings in privacy issues. If I don’t want the world to know about something, that doesn’t mean it wasn’t ethical.

    But yes, it certainly does spark some interesting thoughts, another tool for the toolkit. Thanks for sharing.

    P.S. The “Summit Partners” link is’ah broken.

  4. Sri Reply

    FCUK Ethics! In business, I do not go by ethics at all.
    Do you really think businesses are ethical? I dont think there is even 1 fortune 1000 company that is ethical.

    To name a few:
    Our government has done many unethical things!!
    Dell received a $1 billion dollar payment from Intel.
    CEO’s receive questionable salaries and stock options.
    Many handshake deals are done in businesses.
    Hiring at companies are purely unethical.
    Apple has questionable accounting thingy going on.

    Yes folks, I can be unethical when it comes to making money…hey, just like the good ol’ corporate america. You snoose, you lose!

    PS: I bet Enron was written positively once (or twice) on the front page of WSJ!!

  5. Daniel Elmore Reply

    > Do you really think businesses are ethical?

    No one makes ethical decisions _every_ time. There’s a whole spectrum of “ethicalness”. The world is not black and white. The question is what are you striving for? Where do you get your joy?

    Do you think the guy with the most toys is the happiest? Surely you’re not that naive.

  6. Devin Reply

    Hmm, lets see:

    -Saying “many unethical things” is not naming anything.
    -Payments are expected when exchanging goods and services in the business world, right?
    -Show how executive compensation and handshake deals are an ethical dilemma.
    -Hiring is always subjective but the HR departments are in there to combat that; thats what they get paid for.
    -Everyone has questionable accounting thinggys going on. Accounting is complicated and if something isn’t restricted then certainly you’ll take advantage of it, right? Or else everyone will have that advantage over you until the hole is closed. That sounds like bad business.
    – Of course Enron was, thats how the company became so highly valued in the first place.

    So, you’re saying because other people do it it’s okay? That’s the craziest logic, especially when debating morals. If we all cited “everyone else” as a source for our ethical judgments we’d all be screwed. Try some self-regulation some time.. you don’t have to be dishonest to do well in this world.

    PS: Noah, you couldn’t even use the paint bucket to fill in the letters? Come on, buddy. Okdork means quality.

  7. Sri Reply

    Yes, if other people do it, it is ok! It is what is called the ‘norm’.

    Please show me 1 ethical mechanic and I will jump and fix my car there.

    I went to Mercedes Benz in Chicago (a reputed mercedes dealer) and asked them to change my spark plugs. They charged me $650.

    I told them to FCUK off! I said some people pay $650 and get a used car. I told them to call the cops because i was not going to pay that amount. They reduced it to $350. I was upset even at that price coz a freaking spark plug costs only $2 a piece. (Mercedes has 24). I could see them panicking for charging me $650 in the first place.

    Jiffy Lube is known to be notorious for not changing oil filter and they were caught on camera. Please my friends, name me one corporation that is ethical. I can give you a laundry list of unethical companies. and these are not grey issues but out right unethical. Do you think there is ONE care dealer out there that is ethical?

    Here is my challenge. Name me one ethical business out there? I think even religious bodies are so freaking unethical.

    Like I said, my moral is based on my leaders. I follow by example. To answer someone’s question above..I get joy when i am unethical? and get away with it.

    I have worked with the most ethical people in the WORLD but try going on a business trip with them…then u freaking know whats ethical or not.

    Sorry, I dont mean to sound harsh but i get very passionate when people talk about ethics. I am a firm believer that ethics is a wishful thinking for businesses.

  8. Devin Reply

    And instead of fixing a problem you continuously spiral downwards? You don’t just turn ethics on and off “for businesses.” You simply are or are not. Besides, why do others dictate your own beliefs as to whats right and wrong? Seems kinda spineless to me… if your company dumps pollution into a lake and it kills all the fish you think it’s ‘right’ just because your management and their competitors do?

    If I’m not mistaken, FastCompany dedicates an entire issue to the most ethical and socially responsible companies they can find.

  9. Sri Reply

    Since ethics has a lot of grey issues, why fcuk with it.
    To me, when you are on a business trip and a company allocates $25 for dinner, it doesnt mean u should go out and try to maximise the amount. But 9 out of 10 people would go and eat for around $20 to $25. But if its their own freaking money, Mcdonalds happy meal will do.

    I know highly ethical people who dry cleaned a freaking pair of socks in a hotel. To me, that is not right.

    if the sign says “2 years and under: FREE” or else the entrance is $30…and ur kid is 2 years old 1 day. Do you freaking pay the $30 or try to pass off the kid as 2 or under?

  10. Sri Reply

    Spineless? Does your religion dictate how you should live your life? Is that being spineless? Are Catholics spineless coz the pope dictates how a catholic should be? Are muslims spineless coz they must pray 5 times a day?

    Devin, i am ethical to some extent and not ethical to some.
    I do not like to waste corporate money. I am so against that. Corporations lay off 5000 people and the next thing u hear is that the CEO gets $10 million stock options.

    I think i can turn ethics on and off based on who I am dealing with. I will never fcuk with a small business owner….but I will fcuk with a large corporation that has tons of money.

    I guess the issue you brought up about the company dumping polution into the lake…..great! How about a country that goes to war and kills thousands of children? Should we still be loyal to that country? Should we still pay taxes coz our tax money is being used to finance the war? Its an endless argument my dear friend. Thats why I say, FCUK ethics.

  11. Devin Reply

    Put simply, life is all about the gray issues. That’s why they’re so often debated. Life is not black and white; I feel that if you think so you’re either ignorant or lazy. 😉

    So, just because someone spends money they were allocated means they’re doing the wrong thing? Sri, when a company makes you travel they also want to keep you comfortable and happy. If that means allowing you to spend a few extra dollars to eat well, then thats a cost they already understand…

    But, when a politician spends $500 to take out his buddies to a strip club on tax payer dollars, that’s unethical.

    There’s a big ‘fcuking’ difference…

  12. Daniel Elmore Reply

    Sri, I hear you loud and clear. We are all shaped by life experiences. As of late, I’ve grown a great hate for Yahoo. I think they are a terrible company run by idiots. Why do I think this? Because of my experience working with their search marketing department. Does my experience reflect the whole of Yahoo? Nope. But I don’t like to admit that and when anyone says anything good about them I’m going to put up my guard and try to refute it.

    I think you’re really passionate on this topic because you _do_ care and want to make a difference but may not feel like you have the power to. We’ll you do! And I hope you can be a leader where ever you are and take the high road, fight the good fight. It’s the only way to live. 😉

  13. Devin Reply

    Personal choices to pray are ethical decisions?

    You don’t waste corporate money but you will selectively go after corporations?

    Hmm.. this is becoming absurd.

  14. Sri Reply

    Devin, yes I will selectively go after corporations. If Sisters of the Poor sends me on a business trip, I will not charge hooker expense to them, but if Enron sent me on a business trip, hooker, caviar, booze are all considered business expense 🙂 My ethics is based on who I deal with.

    Let’s say u start ur own business and u land this million dollar contract with XYZ corp, and then u realize that XYZ corp has mafia links, do u tell XYZ corp that u refuse to do business with them?

    I wont waste a company’s money if the company is 99% decent. If they are crooked a little, then FCUK yeah!! This bitch is gonna pimp their ride.

    Daniel, yes ur right. I have no faith in being ethical and being on the losing side so that 3 generations down the road can enjoy a more ethical existence. I am being selfish.

    I do not believe in God and I strongly believe that heaven is a place on earth.

  15. Sri Reply


    I dont agree that if a company allocates $25 for dinner, u should try to maximize it. I belive that u should spend money as if u were NOT being reimbursed. I guess my ethics is so distorted coz as i said, im partly ethical and partly HIGHLY unethical.

  16. Daniel Elmore Reply

    Hey thanks for sharing your personal beliefs, I suppose you’ve already guessed right about mine.

    So to steer things a little towards the title of this post, how many of the said things above would you still do, if you knew they’d be printed on the Wall Street Journal?

  17. Shivani Reply

    Ethics is a really grey area. Ted, as much as I agree that you should be ethical at all times, it’s really hard to say what is ethical all the time. Every single decision you make has a moral basis, if you look at it, and some are just harder to think of in that sense. I think ethics is completely about other people’s perspectives and your actions’ effects on other people.

    Everybody is pointing out Enron as an example of moral failure. Andersen and Enron were harrassed for destroying evidence and for committing accouting fraud. No one is arguing that the CFO at Enron should have been blamed (he knew the repercussions of his actions), but what about all those accountants that were sent to jail that were just following orders from their superiors? From their perspective, they were following orders, there is nothing unethical about that. But, everybody else in the world saw it as each and every one of them committing fraud, and they went to jail. I don’t think any of them could have seen that coming when they altered one number on the Company’s financials, or “accidently” tossed one workpaper out.

    I think Sri is right when he says there is a norm…it doesn’t mean that the norm should always be followed, but as long as nothing goes wrong, the norm is what is accepted. I’m sure everybody has done many things that are unethical, but people rationalize those things by saying “everybody is doing it.” Everybody has sped down the highway at 80+ mph in a 65 mph zone, it’s wrong but everybody sees it as okay, as long as nobody dies. If Enron’s financial condition had improved greatly instead of tanking, nobody would have known about their manipulation of numbers and there wouldn’t have been this huge scandal.

    So, I guess what I’m trying to say, is at the end of the day, when you make decisions, to be ethical, you would have to be ethical in the eyes of OTHER people and your actions couldn’t negatively affect OTHER people. but you can’t please everybody, so, I guess you would just have to be able to live with the result of your actions afterwards.

    sorry that was long and kind of non-climactic 🙂

  18. Noah Kagan Reply

    Well articlated Shivani.

    My life really changed when Ankur told me that line. Strange to know that something so simple could affect me so much. I guess I always thought I did the right thing but in ‘others eyes’ as Shivani would say I think this gave me the rule of right vs. wrong.

    2007 has been my year of ethics and reliability. I am excited about the debate. I am not one to say who is ethical or not, I just want to be comfortable knowing that with every action I do, how would I feel if everyone knew about it. So far so good=)

  19. Sri Reply


    Exactly! This is what I am really trying to make folks understand. Ethics does not make sense. People can try to shove it down our throats but nobody seems to be following ethics.

    Religion was spread through unethical behavior. There is an old African saying….

    “When they came, we had the land and they had the bible, when they left, we had the bible and they had the land..”

  20. Sri Reply

    God is unethical….he made poor people, handicapped people, retarded people, little people, 2 year old girls with AIDS….and he also made wonderful things….millionaire assholes and more.

  21. Damon Billian Reply

    I think there’s a distinction between business ethics and personal ethics:

    1. Don’t lie to your customers.
    2. Be responsible to your shareholders and clients.
    3. Be kind to your employees.
    4. Try to be somewhat socially/enviromentally responsible.

    1. Largely falls down to don’t do harm to others (IMHO).

  22. jc Reply

    i keep it simple. I ask myself “Would I openly and proudly tell my mother about this?” and “Would she approve?” This works 99% of the time!

  23. Robert Franklin Reply

    Great Thread with lots to chew on. Ethics is influenced by many things, religion, nationality and culture. There are truly no black and whites in being ethical. When it comes down to it all we have is our internal moral compass to guide us. There are some good tools suggested here to quickly make the “right” ethical decision as often we only have a moment to make a decision and often it is those snap decisions that we later on regret.