Honor vs. income

Last updated on May 13th, 2019 at 02:21 pm

Is that little white lie OK? Or unethical?
I missed a meeting today. Totally forgot about it.
I haven’t done that since childhood, when I forgot about a piano lesson. I think that was probably Freudian-related. This wasn’t. This was a potential client, a nice guy and a meeting I truly wanted to attend.
He and I had discussed getting together for a breakfast, but I neglected to write it down in my calendar. That’s a reason, not an excuse. For standing him up, wasting his valuable time, making him cool his heels in the restaurant, there is no excuse.
I thought about what one should do in such a situation. Could a little “white lie” help alleviate my professional embarrassment? Should I make up a story about having car trouble? Or tell him my daughter was sick and I had to rush her to the hospital? This is the ethical equivalent of telling your teacher the dog ate your homework, or the more modern counterpart and one I hear frequently as a college instructor, “The computer erased it.”
So it’s a dilemma. Do I invent some elaborate story? Or do I ‘fess up?
There are similar dilemmas businessmen and women encounter every day. Life isn’t always black or white. Gray areas require ethical decisions. How we decide tells a lot about who we are and where we are going.
It brings to mind the whole issue of business ethics, two words many people consider an oxymoron. Can business people be ethical? Or is greed at the very core of business? To make a buck however we can, regardless of who may suffer along the way?
Talk to 10 business people, you will get 10 different ideas about business ethics. We all have been led to believe in a separate set of moral values. Are little “white lies” OK? Some will say yes, others no. Some will say it depends upon the circumstances. What circumstances? Where do we draw the line?
Advertising is rooted in the heart of the issue, an industry built upon perceptions. Advertisers create perceptions about their clients’ products. An image of safety, status, or sex appeal.
Yet because they want to position those products in the best possible light, advertisers frequently tell only about the benefits of the products. They may be tempted to conceal how they might be inferior, or even harmful.
Consequently, it is the general population’s perception that we’re a bunch of liars and thieves. (Not true – by law, advertising must tell the truth, but that’s another article). As such, I believe we in marketing and advertising must work all the harder to overcome that misperception.
Here’s another ethical dilemma: A small organization contracted with a consultant to develop a plan to help it increase revenue. In addition, the consultant was hired on a monthly retainer to implement the plan.
After completing his research, the consultant realized the organization couldn’t afford the monthly retainer. Without consulting management, he tore up the contract and wrote a new one that was less time-intensive, more affordable.
The organization’s president thought he was locked into the old agreement and was worried how he would pay for it. When the consultant offered the new contract at a lower rate, he was relieved. He was also astounded. And that’s sad. Shouldn’t we assume that the experts we hire to help us are really willing to do just that?
You might ask, “But did he do the right thing?” What would the consultant’s boss say? After all, they had a signed contract. Perhaps the lost revenue will leave the consulting firm in a financial bind.
Ultimately, that organization’s president may tell others about his experience, leading to more work for the consulting firm. Then again, maybe not.
Service businesses represent over half the US economy, and the numbers are growing. As more of the population becomes a part of the service sector, business ethics takes on a more important role.
Selling services takes trust. Your customer must believe you can deliver the solution to his problem. If he can’t touch it, see it, smell it, or feel it, the only way he can have confidence in the results is if he has confidence in you.
Consulting is a service business not unlike many other service businesses such as insurance, computer software, architectural or engineering services. We sell little more than paper and promises – my word is my bond.
Two hours after the missed appointment, I realized my error and called his office and apologized and told him exactly what happened.
When I hung up, I had the feeling that I had lost his confidence in me and, with it, all hope of acquiring his company as a client. I felt badly for letting him down. But I felt better for telling the truth.
Robert Grede is an adjunct professor of marketing at Marquette University, and author of “Naked Marketing – The Bare Essentials” (Prentice Hall). www.thegredecompany.com.
Aug. 17, 2001 Small Business Times, Milwaukee

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