3/3/2005 - As business people, we are all called upon to make ethical business decisions every day, decisions that require us to conduct ourselves in a specific way. We base our decisions, knowingly or unknowingly, on a code of behavior. In defining ethical behavior, a prominent Florida banker once remarked, “Around here, we say that if you have to think about it really hard, questioning whether it’s right or wrong, don’t do it.” Determining the “right” thing to do is sometimes very clear while, on other occasions, it’s more difficult, particularly when the working area is gray and the lines of demarcation are fuzzy. As managers, we’re interested in the question of ethics because it relates to the culture of our society, our sense of being civilized and fully human and our ideas of how we should live our lives. In addition, the questions raised by the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation are causing management to focus more intently on business ethics, develop corporate ethics policies and conduct business ethics workshops for managers and employees. We are concerned with the question of ethics in our world today because it deals with fundamental questions of society, which include, “How ought we to act? How ought we to live our lives? How ought we to behave?” We see examples of ethical dilemmas in science, business, religion, genetics and the media.

* In science, the field of genetics is growing so rapidly that many states have prohibitions against the use of genetic testing in employment. If genetic testing can predict the probability of a person’s contracting a debilitating disease, is it ethical to use that information in making an employment decision because, for example, this would raise insurance costs?

* In journalism, writers and reporters are faced with the question of balancing the profit motive against reporting the hard news. If a journalist has the opportunity to report a story quickly to get a scoop, even if some of the facts are in question, is it ethical to proceed with the story?


Ethics is intertwined with the question of character, the “make up” of a person, the elements of a person’s personality that determine individual identity, leading to personal decisions and actions. The ancient Greeks, those progenitors of us all, give good advice here. They suggested that if you can determine a person’s character, you can predict how he or she will act, for the most part. For example, a cheater will cheat, a liar will lie. a brave person will show courage and an honorable person will act honorably, regardless of individual sacrifice. Why? Because this is their character. Aristotle, whose concepts have so strongly influenced western thought, wrote that character is “how you act when no one is looking.” Although the concepts of “ethics,” and “morality” are clearly related, they have an important distinction. Ethics is a branch of philosophy. It includes the question of how one ought to act or behave. It is a question of conduct. Many companies publish a “Code of Ethics,” which is a description of the standards of behavior the company expects.

The Ten Commandments provide us with an example of a code of ethics, a standard of behavior, religious in origin, but generally accepted in western society. Morality, on the other hand, is the question of whether something is right or wrong and this determination can apply to any action or thought. When we say that something is unethical, we say that it does not comply with an accepted code of conduct, one that is either written and established, or one generally accepted in society. When we say that something is immoral, we say that it is wrong. As management, we want to establish a code of ethics that rises to a high moral level, that affirms a standard of behavior that is “right,” and with which we agree to comply. Experts identify a variety of principles to include in a Code of Ethics.

1. In dealing with customers, clients, patients or employees, keep all transactions private and confidential and don’t discuss them with those who have no “need to know.”

2. Treat all customers, employees and co-workers with respect, dignity, fairness and equality.

3. Always provide more service than people expect.

4. Always conduct business honorably, with strength of character and unquestioned integrity.

5. Treat all customers and clients equally, refusing to take advantage of someone else’s need, in exchange for personal preferential treatment.

6. Confidential, proprietary information will be used for company business only, and not for personal benefit or private gain.

7. Provide the product or service on time or earlier.

8. Always resolve conflict in favor of the other person, whenever possible, and always assume that a problem is a result of a misunderstanding, not bad intentions.

9. Avoid a “Conflict of Interest,” where personal interests conflict with those of the employer.

10. For most of us, ethical business principles involve coming to work on time, consistently performing the job to the best of our ability, maintaining good relationships with other employees and always telling the truth.

President Harry Truman once remarked, “Always do right. This will gratify some people and astonish the rest.” Thus, the fundamental question of good business ethics is, “What is the right thing to do?” It is said of President Gerald Ford that, before finalizing any decision, he would turn and ask the group, “Yes, but is it right.” As good managers, may it be said of us, that we always try to do the right thing, consistently, every day, the best we know how.

Sandy has developed a 3 hour management workshop on Business Ethics. If you would like this workshop for your managers, please contact Sandy at Sandy is also available to address your conference or convention on this subject in break-out sessions or general meetings.

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