WHAT'S REALLY IMPORTANT
Moral principles were invented eons ago to create a framework for civil behavior and protect the weak and innocent. These principles establish a standard of what is right and wrong that is generally observed throughout the world.
While the term “ethics” is somewhat similar in meaning to “morals”, it is now more commonly used to define standards of acceptable behavior, including those of a more complex or subtle nature. There are three categories of ethical standards — those that are clear-cut and unambiguous, those that are in “the grey zone” and those that are subject to different interpretations in different parts of the world.
The first category is straightforward and applies to both one’s professional and personal life. Quite simply, one should not engage in any activity involving the following:
Most of these acts are covered by “the golden rule” — Do unto others as you would have them do unto you, or as it is expressed by Confucius, Do not do to others what you would not like done to yourself. Following this rule is the right and only way to conduct yourself.
One’s ethics and integrity should not be situational. Follow the same code of conduct in business and your personal life. You want people to be able to depend on you to do the right thing all the time, regardless of the circumstances. This means being completely honest and trustworthy in all your dealings with everyone.
Apart from our behavior with others, all of us have an ethical responsibility for maintaining the well-being of the natural world and climate upon which our current and future existence relies. We all live in an increasingly interdependent ecosystem where any depletion of forests, ocean life and species in one part of the world inevitably ends up harming the rest of us. For too long, this responsibility has been largely ignored. Rightly so, the author Thomas Friedman has urged everyone to follow an “ethic of conservation”.
The second category of ethical standards includes many situations involving behavior that is technically legal but clearly unethical. The best rule to follow in these cases is: If you are told to do something that does not feel right, ask yourself whether it would be OK if such an act were reported on the front page of your local newspaper. If you would be embarrassed to read about it there, you probably should not do it.
In a July 26, 2010 memo to his managers, Warren Buffet stated: “Sometimes your associates will say ‘Everybody else is doing it.’ This rationale is almost always a bad one if it is the main justification for a business action. It is totally unacceptable when evaluating a moral decision. Whenever somebody offers that phrase as a rationale, in effect they are saying that they can’t come up with a good reason. If anyone gives this explanation, tell them to try using it with a reporter or judge and see how far it gets them.”
Also, watch out for “just this once” requests to do something unethical. Such acts put you on a slippery downward slope. Once you have sinned, you are a sinner. Whenever you commit an unethical act, it always has a way of coming back to haunt you.
If you have concerns at work whether a certain practice is ethical or legal, consult a mentor or your organization’s legal department. When you come across something at your organization you believe is unethical, you should use your best efforts to correct or prevent it. Likewise, if you are engaged in a transaction that cannot be recorded exactly the way it occurred, try to oppose it. The same applies to covering up mistakes or problems. Whenever such a situation occurs, keep a record for yourself of exactly what happened, including the date and the names of any other witnesses.
The third category of ethical standards varies from region to region in the world. It concerns the practice of bribery. In most developed countries, bribery is regarded as both illegal and unethical. Furthermore, Canadian, U.K. and U.S. companies are breaking the law when they engage in bribery not just domestically but also anywhere else in the world. In certain other countries, bribery and payoffs are commonplace in dealings with business and government. Increasingly, multinational corporations and international groups, such as the UN, are working to prohibit such corruption.
Business author Tad Tuleja put this practice into perspective: “While foreign custom may be enlisted as an explanation for particular improprieties, it is quite unreliable as a general defense of multinational behavior. The ‘trivial’ case of grease money [bribery], then, should be seen as the top of a very slippery slope. Once you let a single corrupt official, working under the aegis of ‘custom’, rearrange your business ethics for you, you are wed to moral submissiveness as long as you do business in his country.” When you engage in bribery, you are simply encouraging it to continue.
Do not give expensive business gifts to anyone. They create the perception of being a bribe. Also, as the author and publisher Michael Korda said, “It is always a bad idea to give your secretary a more expensive gift than your wife, and an even worse idea to give anybody else in the office a more expensive gift than you gave your secretary.”
There are many countries in the world whose economic development is handicapped by the absence of a clearly established rule of law and independent judicial system that upholds contracts, property rights and honest dealings, supported by an unrestricted press and other media. If you live in such a country, I recommend you support the adoption of a clear rule of law, an independent judicial system and freedom of the press and media as soon as possible. If this does not appear likely to happen, you might want to move to another country. Otherwise, you run the terrible risk of working for years to build a business and provide for your family, only to lose everything in a totally arbitrary manner.
Technological change brings with it new ethical concerns. One of these has become the extent to which various organizations and governments are engaging in different forms of electronic surveillance of individuals, invasions of their privacy, and sharing personal data, all on an undisclosed basis. Unless they are performing an illegal act, people should have a right to know when they are under surveillance and to control who has access to their personal information. In my opinion, to violate these rights is to commit an unethical act.
One of the most serious examples of unethical behavior occurs when one abuses a position of power and inflicts unacceptable behavior on subordinates and those unable to defend themselves, including women and children. If you find yourself with such a superior, it is important that you stand up to that person and state that such behavior is unacceptable. If it persists, consult someone in a higher position of authority to remedy the situation. If this fails, start looking for another job.
Anyone in a position of leadership or authority has a duty to demonstrate moral leadership to all the members of his or her organization. This includes upholding those values that are fundamental to fair and honest dealings with others and being a responsible citizen in the community. Nothing is more valuable to a person than his or her reputation for integrity and ethical behavior. Yet, it can be lost forever in five minutes of poor judgment.