Trust factor Featured

7:00pm EDT February 28, 2007

Eleven years ago, I owned a fledgling business that, like many young companies, was struggling to grow past the start-up phase.

Through a calculated risk, I put my trust in an overseas partner whom I’d worked with for several years and who had always talked about being honorable.

Unfortunately, my trust was misplaced. Through a series of unethical actions that sullied his honor, my partner reneged on his end of the bargain. The disastrous results crippled my operations and nearly left me in personal and professional financial ruin.

As painful as the experience was — it took several years to recover — I received a valuable lesson in business ethics. It can take years to build trust with your clients, vendors, partners and employees, but you can destroy all that hard work with a single unethical action. Worse, the damage you cause sometimes can’t be repaired.

A friendly reminder of the importance of ethical behavior arrived recently in the form of a letter from a former cover story subject. In it, this CEO announced his organization’s new code of ethics and included a copy of an 18-page pamphlet that contained sections on, among other things, accepting gifts, vendor-sponsored travel, honorariums, improper payments and conflicts of interest.

The CEO’s letter expressed gratitude for the relationships the company had built over the years and explained that to maintain these relationships, it was critical to hold every member of the organization accountable for following fundamental principles of ethical business conduct. Then the CEO went one step further by including a compliance hotline phone number to call if any part of his written promise was broken.

It’s a bold statement, but one that instantly caught my attention, as I’m sure it did with others who received the package.

Not every company has the resources to develop and implement a program with this level of detail for its constituents. But it’s an idea any CEO can adapt.

Just saying you run an ethical ship doesn’t make it true. Ethics deserves more than just lip service, and putting it in writing is a good way to make everyone in your organization accountable.

Say what you’re going to do, then do what you say; it’s as straightforward as that. As this CEO wrote in his letter, “Honesty and integrity are the hallmarks of this code. There are simply no substitutes.”

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