A human-resources executive called a former employer to check the accuracy of an applicant's rsum. "Yes, Mr. Smooth worked for me," said the former employer. "Would you consider him a qualified accountant?" asked the personnel man. "As a matter of fact, I found him to be overqualified," replied the former employer. "I also found him to be a quick study who, over time, proved to be appropriately versatile." "In what way?" asked the caller. "He not only did double-entry bookkeeping, but triple-entry, as well." "Triple-entry bookkeeping -- what's that?" asked the HR exec. "He kept one set of books for me showing the company's true profit, a second set for my partner showing a small profit, and a third set for the income-tax authorities showing a loss." "That sounds like dishonesty to me," exclaimed the astounded inquirer. "I didn't say I trusted him. I merely admitted hiring him." "But if he cheated, why did you hire him?" the caller asked. "He didn't cheat when I hired him, but I could tell he was a fast learner." This story is a fictitious segue into the findings of a Yankelovich Partners survey of business ethics that caught my attention recently. The survey was conducted in June by the Lutheran Brotherhood, an organization that provides financial services, insurance, and various other programs for its more than 1 million Lutheran members. The study was conducted among 1,000 working American adults. The good news is that 76% of the respondents said they never had been asked (or ordered) to do anything they considered unethical pertaining to their work. The bad news is that 24% confessed that they have been asked (or ordered) to do something they considered unethical. And the really bad news is that 41% of those asked actually did the dastardly deed that was requested of them without objecting. Then, to further test the value standards of American working adults, the survey asked the question (and I paraphrase): "If you discovered that your employer was asking you to do something unethical, dishonest, or unlawful, what would you do?" Only 5% said they would quit. Another 9% said they would look the other way. A whopping 78% said they would talk to their bosses or try to resolve the problem in some way that would not cause them to lose their jobs. The remaining 8% were uncertain about what they would do -- or refused to 'fess up. As I see this study, it is merely another bit of proof that the value systems of the American people have undergone a radical change during the years following World War II. Today, Americans, workers and nonworkers, have developed an alarming tolerance for intolerance. Today, lying about consensual relationships (even under oath) is tolerable because everyone lies about sex. Today, if the economy is good, it's tolerable to be bad. Today, if you have an oily tongue, it's tolerable to have a slick mind. Today, if you have enough principal, it's tolerable to be unprincipled. Today, if you apologize for a heinous crime, it's tolerable to be forgiven. Today, if you travel in the right circles, it's tolerable if you arrive nowhere. Today, if you misrepresent the goods, it's tolerable if you're selling yourself. Today, if you work for a cheater, it's tolerable as long as you benefit from it. Today, it seems to me that if you follow the Ten Commandments, it's tolerable if you never catch up with any of them. Sal F. Marino is chairman emeritus of Penton Media Inc. and an IW contributing editor. His e-mail address is [email protected].