Ethics: Do the right thing

We are compromised as a society when it comes to ethics in politics, sports, business and personal relationships. Where is our ethical compass? How are we to find our way in these turbulent economic times without one?

In the past we have looked toward our teachers, sports heroes, religious and political leaders to serve as pathfinders. But many of our sports heroes admit to taking performance-enhancing drugs. Governors are arrested for influence peddling or indulging in parties with high-priced female companions. Senators get indicted for kickbacks and religious leaders for embezzling funds from their congregants. Even our president was accused of lying to Congress about the intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. A leader of a major Wall Street firm is accused of running a ponzi scheme.

Who are we to trust?

There are positive signs. A corrupt Milwaukee alderman was defeated in November’s local election. Two senators convicted for accepting kickbacks and bribes were defeated after serving many terms in the Senate. After a strong reaction from the voters in Illinois, the state legislature has begun impeachment proceedings to remove Gov. Rod Blagojevich from office.

As citizens, we must continue to exert our influence and hold these elected officials accountable for their behavior. In addition, we need to hold ourselves accountable for unethical decisions.

We must rely on our own judgment and experience when it comes to ethical decisions. We all have had teachers, religious leaders and significant others who have been our pathfinders on the road of life. It is now our turn to show others the way. As leaders in the business community, it is our responsibility to demonstrate to our employees, clients and suppliers that we are ethical in all our business and personal interactions.

In an earlier article, I referred to the concept of the shadow of the leader. We must remember that our employees look to us for an example on how to handle difficult business decisions. Our management team watches how we treat our suppliers and customers. Based on their observations, they determine how they are to behave in similar situations. Employees will also model the behaviors they see on a daily basis from their supervisors. Unless we act ethically, how can we expect them to behave in the same manner? We, as business leaders, cannot sit by idly and let our elected representatives abuse their power, while forgetting who elected them. The national priority is now to find an ethical path to business success.

It is not enough to produce an excellent product or deliver superior service. It has to done in an ethical manner. Customers will reward organizations that demonstrate that ethics are an important part of their culture. Just having a vision and mission statement is not sufficient. Your company needs to develop guiding principles that articulate ethical guidelines that all employees are expected to support. These guiding principles need to be discussed throughout the organization. Prospective employees will want to work for a company that stresses ethical behaviors. Vendors will want to do business with a manufacturer who ethically negotiates their contracts and implements all aspects of the agreements. Often I hear about employers who make promises during the hiring process and fail to keep those promises after the applicant is hired. At the same time, prospective employees have been known to act unethically when applying for a position. They exaggerate on their resumes with regard to education, experience and previous salary.

If we continue to reinforce these behaviors, we will never find our way.

We need to encourage the discussion of ethics in business and life in our schools at every level. Most graduate schools require an ethical component in each of their MBA level classes. This is especially true at DeVry University, Keller Graduate School where ethical discussions and assignments are a required part of the curriculum. Enron, WorldCom and Martha Stewart have become case studies that are used to demonstrate the results of a failure in maintaining an ethical compass.

Unless we stress that ethics should be a component that is considered in every business decision, we are failing the next generation of business leaders. As business leaders we need to encourage the creation of ethical vision and mission statements. Encourage every member of your management to spend 15 minutes writing down two or three ethical guidelines they would or do employ in their business dealings, then share those guidelines with their peers.

When we put ethical decision-making above the achievement of profit goals at any cost, we start to find our ethical compass.

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