Business Ethics: Are they important?

Have you ever wondered what people think of you and your organisation?  You really should, because what people think defines your reputation.

Many organisations, and some individuals, have budgets allocated to improving their brand and promoting themselves so as to influence what people think of them.  And while they will consider the exercise to be money well spent, most fail to consider that our clients and the general public are constantly evaluating us as service providers, but that those evaluations are then impacted by other information, beyond our control, that comes to them via various channels and sources.

The branding and promotional work will project a picture of how we like to think of ourselves and our organisation, but if our actions do not support that picture then it will become distorted and out of focus.  If the new information is sufficiently compelling, that could become the new picture.  Don’t forget, perception is reality.  It’s not what we say about ourselves but what others think of us that defines our reputation.

A satisfied client or customer will happily recommend you and your organisation to others.  A customer who has received poor service or inferior goods will also talk about you to others, but not to say anything to your benefit.

This is where business ethics come in.  Business ethics are, simply, the day to day choices you make, whether you are the Caretaker, Machine Operator, Marketing Manager or Chief Executive and what your responsibilities are.  Good business is repeat business.  You have a choice.  You can choose to do your work the best way you can and do your bit to please the customer and get that repeat business, or you can choose to cut corners and produce inferior products, exaggerate the benefits of your service or increase fees when you can get away with it and lose that business.

In an article on ethics in the New Zealand Herald (2nd March 2005) Ralph Norris who was then CEO of Air NZ, said, “Executives who are less than honest usually behave differently.  I don’t buy into the ‘shades of dishonesty’ argument.  An executive’s behaviour is either right or it’s not.”  He believed that executives also need to know the difference between what is lawful and what is morally right.  “Any executive who tries to get a commercial advantage through dishonesty is playing a very dangerous game.  The market will ultimately deal to them, especially if they’re legally sound but morally questionable.”

In 2020, even more so than in 2005, there is pressure on staff at all levels in an organisation to perform, but like Norris, I believe that performance should never be at any cost.  Most people have values – integrity, respect, honesty, for example – and it is their values that people will have to examine if pressure from management could mean compromising them.

Every organisation has its own set of values.  Think about your own organisation and its culture – the way things are done.  In some workplaces the values sound good, but the way people work rarely demonstrates those values in practice.  In other workplaces, people at all levels “walk the talk,” and it is accepted that organisational values are an integral part of day-to-day work life.  And not just in the way tasks are performed and people treated; every aspect of the business – planning, recruitment, training, budgeting – is undertaken with the organisation’s values in mind.  You can’t cherry pick which values you will work to in this sort of organisation.

What are your organisation’s values, and do they create a happy and productive workplace?  If your answer is that people only pay lip-service to the values, they cut corners, produce shoddy work and don’t take responsibility, then ask, do my personal values support this?  If your answer is yes, then you are working in the right type of organisation for you, but it is likely that neither you nor the organisation will amount to much.

If, on the other hand, you are not comfortable in that environment and don’t enjoy coming to work, then maybe you should be looking for an employer where the values are more in line with your own.  Of course, if you are a Senior Executive there, or the owner, you have the ideal opportunity to turn the situation around.  This will be no mean feat.  Most people will resent any effort to change the current culture and will fight every step of the way because it’s what they are comfortable with.  And it will take time.  Changing an organisation’s culture usually takes a minimum of 3 years.  Definitely the work of a champion!

Jennifer Wyatt Sargent