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Business Ethics – Got’em? Need’em?

In discussions the other day with a couple of industry colleagues, the topic of business ethics came up. My colleagues were relating some stories from their work that highlighted some “questionable” behaviour and decision-making. Some might even call it questionable ethics. (I did.) But is there really such a thing – questionable ethics? Can something really be all that grey when it comes to business ethics? The three of us debated this topic a bit and then it hit me – if we really have to question the behaviour or try to fit the proverbial square peg into a round hole, perhaps it is best to err on the side of caution and chalk the situation up to being unethical? Meaning, if we aren’t sure if something is ethical, should we not conduct ourselves as if it were inherently unethical?

Over my career I have had the privilege of working with many professionals from the accounting, engineering and human resources professions. A huge part of these professions is our professional certifications (CA, CGA, P.Eng ,CHRP, etc.) and the supporting code of ethics that we adhere to as part of our credentials. The people that I have the most respect for in these professions are able to separate their profession from their job/company. In other words, for them, there is a clear delineation between church and state. I know of individuals, based on their personal and professional set of ethics will never “tow the company line” on something or be coerced into unethical decision-making because of their job or company. They have a set of principles that they believe in and stand for and that is what sets them apart. This is part of their DNA, their personal brand. For them, business ethics are black and white. Something is ethical or it isn’t. It doesn’t necessarily mean it is a matter of right or wrong. However, they get that weird, sticky, greasy feeling in the pit of their stomach when faced with something that isn’t obviously “wrong” or unethical, but for them, it sure isn’t “right” or ethical. In terms of the behaviour in question, I agree with Victoria Duff from Demand Media that unethical behaviours are those that intentionally cause deception, coercion, unlawful conduct or disregard company rules and policies. She provided this information in her article “Examples of Unethical Behaviour in the Workplace.” The link included here provides clarity on these.

In my opinion, these types are the real stewards and custodians of their profession and their company. As I said before, I have had the privilege of working with, and fo,r a select few that take this approach and I feel I am a better HR professional because of it. We have seen far too many cases of business that have collapsed or were on the road to ruin because of the unethical behaviour of its leaders, professionals, etc. (Think Enron, Tyco).

Our (heavy) conversation that day concluded with my other colleague saying, “I think I need to find a good training course for my management team on business ethics.” To which I quickly responded, “don’t waste your time, money and effort.” My feeling was that the various members of her management team were either inherently ethical or not and no amount of training would change that. I advised her to focus on the leader of her company and to make sure that they were displaying the right behaviours and values. In other words, does the CEO model ethical behaviour? Or do they dabble in the gray a lot? If the business leader’s DNA is wired for ethical behaviour, the majority of the organization will follow suit and those that are not wired for ethical behaviour become obvious and easy to manage (out).

Now I know some of you may be saying, hold on – this isn’t that easy to define…..every situation is different/unique and you can’t label this. My opinion is that yes you can! In case you are wondering if the folks you work with or for dabble in the grey, here are some phrases that set off the stink meter for me:

1. “Well, there is no law against this”
2. “It is only a problem if someone makes a complaint”
3. “We will continue to do this until such time as someone (regulating body) tells us we can’t.”
4. “Well I interpret that (rule/law) differently.” OR “The rule/law is silent on this particular issue.”
5. “Let’s see how we can make this situation (rule/policy) work for us instead of against us.”
6. “Those are just guidelines….not hard and fast rules per se.”
7. “No one will notice this one time.”

I challenge each and every one of you to raise the level of ethical awareness in your organizations. Be a champion for your profession and of your personal brand – at the end of the day that is all you have when you go out that door everyday from work. Don’t settle for bending rules, guidelines or looking for an easy way out. Do the right thing.

What about you? Have you faced these situations before? What sets off your ethical stink meter? As always, your comments and feedback are welcomed.

Image courtesy of Master isolated images/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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2 Responses

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  2. […] will be based on results that are obtained in alignment with corporate values. Effective and ethical decision making will occur as a result of values being the guiding hand upon which organizations govern themselves. […]

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