The Four-Way Test of the things we think, say or do is a test used by Rotarians world-wide as a moral code for personal and business relationships. The test can be applied to almost any aspect of life. The test was scripted by Herbert J. Taylor an American from Chicago as he set out to save the Club Aluminum Products Distribution Company from bankruptcy. It was later adopted by Rotary International, the global federation of Rotary service clubs.
In the early 1930s Herbert J. Taylor set out to save the Club Aluminum Products distribution company from bankruptcy. He believed himself to be the only person in the company with 250 employees who had hope. His recovery plan started with changing the ethical climate of the company. He explained:
The first job was to set policies for the company that would reflect the high ethics and morals God would want in any business. If the people who worked for Club Aluminum were to think right, I knew they would do right. What we needed was a simple, easily remembered guide to right conduct – a sort of ethical yardstick- which all of us in the company could memorize and apply to what we thought, said and did.
I searched through many books for the answer to our need, but the right phrases eluded me, so I did what I often do when I have a problem I can’t answer myself: I turn to the One who has all the answers. I leaned over my desk, rested my head in my hands and prayed. After a few moments, I looked up and reached for a white paper card. Then I wrote down the twenty-four words that had come to me:
- Is it the truth?
- Is it fair to all concerned?
- Will it build goodwill and better friendships?
- Will it be beneficial to all concerned?
I called it “The Four-Way Test” of the things we think, say or do.
Adoption of the test by Rotary
In the 1940s, when Taylor was an international director of Rotary, he offered the Four Way Test to the organization, and it was adopted by Rotary for its internal and promotional use. Never changed, the twenty four word test remains today a central part of the permanent Rotary structure throughout the world, and is held as the standard by which all behaviour should be measured. The test has been promoted around the world and is used in myriad forms to encourage personal and business ethical practices. Taylor gave Rotary International the right to use the test in the 1940s and the copyright in 1954. He retained the rights to use the test for himself, his Club Aluminum Company and the Christian Workers Foundation. 
Herbert J. Taylor was the author of the Four Way Test in 1932. Is the ethical test still practical today? Of course, it is. If you are a person that cares about ethical values and what is right, it can become very disheartening to continue to hear of news stories day after day of someone who has destroyed thousands of people’s lives from both a financial and emotional standpoint. Sometimes you must ask yourself the questions of, “Where has the concept of right and wrong gone? Have we allowed ourselves to become a society that accepts unethical behavior as a norm or standard? Has winning at all costs become the unwritten mission statement of businesses and sports teams everywhere?” Yet, many times when we become aware of someone we know who is involved in some unethical activity, we just turn our heads and pretend it’s not happening. Isn’t that condoning an activity we should be opposed to? Often it’s the people who have been affected by unethical behavior, that are the ones who are willing to speak up. What we all need to do is take a step back and look at the big picture and say, “Wait a minute. No, this is not a standard I want and it’s not one I want for my family.” As Rotarians, I believe you and I have an opportunity to help reverse this unethical trend. We need to share the ethical message of the Four Way Test with everyone. That’s right. We don’t need to leave it at our meeting place. Speaking to clubs across our nation, I have often heard clubs repeat it during their meeting. What benefit is that, if when you leave your meeting place, you forget all about it? I believe we need to share it with everyone and I have four suggestions how to accomplish that goal. 1. We all need to examine our own lives and make sure we are leading a good ethical life. As Rotarians, we need to promote ethical living. We need to promote the Four Way Test and we need to “talk the talk”, but we also need to “walk the walk”. We all need to be an example of what is good and right to everyone we know. None of us lead perfect ethical lives, but everyone you know should know where you stand on any ethical issue. 2. We need to share the ethical message of the Four Way Test with everyone in our workplace. It doesn’t matter your business or profession or if it is profit or non-profit. It doesn’t matter if you work with just one other person, or hundreds of people, you need to share this message with everyone in your workplace. Now let’s look at some important questions that should be asked. A. For a message of ethics and integrity to be effective in any organization, who needs to deliver that message? The obvious answer is the business owners and those in management. Leading by example can be a very powerful tool when it comes to ethical values. B. Are you treating your customers, clients, etc. fairly? Are you selling them the product you advertise? When businesses face tough economic times, they sometimes are tempted to substitute a lower quality product for the one advertised to help the bottom line. When times get tough, as Rotarians, we should raise our character to its highest level, to help avoid falling prey to that temptation. C. Are you treating your employees fairly? Are they being compensated at a level that is prevailing in your area? Do you make them feel like they are an important part of your organization? Or do they feel like they are just another number? Treat your employees fairly. 3. We need to share this ethical message with everyone we care about. Obviously, this includes all your family members. It might include your next-door neighbor, all close friends and perhaps your daughter’s soccer coach. Everyone you care about, should know about the Four Way Test. Make sure they all know how important it is to you, to do what is right. 4. If you become aware of someone you know that is involved in some unethical activity, you need to try and help that person. The best way to start that process, is to talk to the person about it. By opening the line of communication regarding the unethical behavior, you might just make the person aware of what he or she was trying to avoid thinking about because deep down they knew it was wrong. Be persistent, as you might be one of the few people they respect enough to cause them to change their ways. How important is it to act with integrity and high ethical standards toward everyone we meet, including complete strangers who we may never see again? Will it make any difference? Let me answer that by sharing a personal story of how a stranger changed my life when I was 25 years old with his ethics and integrity. Nearing the end of my enlistment serving in the United States Air Force, I went to check out a computer programing school in Oklahoma City, Ok. I had decided to pursue a career as a computer programmer. I toured the facilities and took an entrance exam. After lunch I met with owner of the school for an interview. He seemed very excited and told me I had scored higher on the exam than anyone in a long time. He told me all my expenses would be paid for and after successful completion of the school, he not only guaranteed me that he would find me a job, he guaranteed me a starting salary of approximately 3 times what I was currently making. I was so excited, I asked where to sign as I wanted to enroll in that school right then. The owner pointed out I had over 2 years of college completed on the transcript I had provided. He suggested that if I ever wanted to be in management, where I could make more money, or even become President of the company I worked for someday, I would need a college degree. He then suggested if I wanted to be a computer programmer, I should consider some business-related field like accounting. He would not allow me to enroll in the school that day, but suggested I think about what he had told me for a few days and call him back and let him know. As I began to reflect on what he had advised me, what he said began to make a lot of sense to me. I decided to return to my home state in Arkansas and enroll in college and major in accounting like he had suggested. While attending college, my Dad, who was a CPA, offered me a part time job with his firm which developed into a 40-year career for me as a CPA. I owe it all to the owner of the computer programming school, who demonstrated remarkable ethics and integrity. That man did not advise me like I was a stranger. He advised me like I was his own son. He told me to do what was right for me, not what was right for him or his school and I will be forever grateful to him. The original question was, “Will it make any difference if we act toward complete strangers with ethics and integrity?” It made a difference in my life and I am convinced it will make a difference in other’s lives as well. Let me provide a very practical and impressive way to recognize young people in your community who have demonstrated good ethical behavior. My club in Sherwood, Arkansas, USA ( District 6150 ) has been holding an Ethics Awards Ceremony for students of our local schools for over 25 years. Eight winners are chosen, 4 girls and 4 boys, from students who have been nominated by teachers and counselors at local schools. Neither academics, athletic ability nor popularity are considered by those making nominations. It is based on the student’s character and ethics. At the awards ceremony, we invite the winners and their families as well as school and district officials and the teachers and counselors who nominated the students. All the winners are individually introduced, given a plaque indicating they are the “Ethics Winner” for that year and they are also given cash. The members of our club have long believed that by both recognizing and rewarding young people for demonstrating good ethical behavior now, will have an impact on their ethical behavior in the future. Perhaps it will have an impact on the guests and family members in attendance. Over the years, family members have sometimes shared they first learned of their child’s ethical deed or deeds because of, or at the awards ceremony. What a great way to promote Rotary in the community and for a great reason, recognizing young people for demonstrating good ethical behavior. Please consider holding a similar event in your community. Believe in your ability to make a difference in the ethical values of the people you know. We all have that power, but we may underestimate our ability to use it to influence the ethical values of those we know. Because unethical behavior is such a critical issue today, please get involved. We don’t need to wait for others to promote ethical behavior. As Rotarians, we need to take a leadership role in ethics. I challenge you to seize every opportunity when it presents itself, speak up for ethical behavior and stand up for what is right, even if you are the only one standing. Unfortunately, the power of greed may overcome a good upbringing and common sense. To counter this, I feel we need to continue to educate and remind everyone about ethical values and the truth. Rotary has a great tool, it is called…. The Four Way Test. You can make a difference. Rotary has been making a difference in people’s lives all over the world for over 100 years because of Rotarians. Rotarians just like YOU.
NOTES: Adapted from EClubONE and authored by Guinn Massey, Rotary Club of Sherwood Arkansas