Ethics, the real business of business Featured

9:56am EDT July 22, 2002
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I was conducting a secondary interview a couple of months ago for a story I was working on when the conversation, as it often does, slipped into an unrelated area. My source and I engaged in a brief chat about business ethics.

He seems to believe that a higher level of ethical behavior is beginning to find its way into the business world, that entrepreneurs and business leaders are seeing the long-term value of conducting themselves honestly in the marketplace with their employees, customers and with the public in general. My response was that, although I wasn’t sure that might be the case, I hoped he was right.

The conversation stuck in my mind. It kept buzzing around in the back of my mind, and finally, I suppose, it started to dance with a few other thoughts in my consciousness.

It all gelled while I was sitting in traffic on the Parkway East one morning during a noisy rainstorm: Isn’t business where it all starts when it comes to ethics? Isn’t business our real secular religion? Don’t we all identify ourselves closely with our role in the commercial sector? And isn’t business one of the few activities that just about everybody engages in on some level every day?

Ultimately, at the simplest level, we’re all buyers and sellers negotiating for something, whether it’s a lease on office space or a better rate on electricity. If that’s the case, then isn’t business really the most influential school of practical morality? Aren’t the real universities in business parks, factories and retail stores?

If you sense a sermon coming on, you’re right. I’m not above getting on the soapbox in the office or at home, but I almost never do it in print. This month, however, is going to be an exception.

When I was in the retail food business, one of my responsibilities was to conduct training and orientation for new employees. Many were young people, often high school students who were taking on their first jobs. One of the things I would tell them during my presentation was that the habits they formed on their first job, such as their personal appearance, punctuality and work ethic, would likely follow them throughout their working lives. I still believe that.

I can trace some of my lifelong work habits back to my first job. I also believe that the work experience, particularly for young people, leaves a lasting impression on the individual. If an employer treats you unfairly, asks you to do things that you don’t believe are ethical or cheats its customers, you’re liable to believe that all business people conduct themselves in a similar manner. Worse, you’ll probably accept it as the normal course of things. That, I think, is a formula for inducing a degrading cynical attitude in people.

None of this means that I think business people are morally bankrupt. On the contrary, I am impressed with the quality of most of the people I meet in the course of carrying on our business at SBN. Many are people I would choose as friends. Most are remarkably humble, hardworking and, I believe, honest. I’m sure a few have pulled the wool over my eyes, but most eventually reveal themselves for what they are.

A wise and successful entrepreneur with more than his share of successes under his belt recently shared an insight with us. When things you are doing or thinking about doing keep you awake at night, he advised, it’s time to check the moral compass. You’re probably straying off course.

So maybe we ought not be so obsessed with the things that we think are degrading our society, like philandering presidents, MTV and show biz wrestling, and begin instead to reshape the business environment as a model of upright behavior.

Forget about the politicians inside the Beltway. Don’t look to the officials in local government, either. And although I wouldn’t propose that our schools shouldn’t at least teach that there is such a thing as ethical behavior, what good is all the instruction in the classroom or preaching from the pulpit if the marketplace rewards or even tolerates bad behavior?

A thoughtful look at how we do business with our customers, our vendors and our employees might go a lot further toward producing a better society than all of the handwringing and griping about the behavior of public officials, rappers and bad-boy sports figures.

When it comes to forging a new code of ethics, you might be the most important person in the equation. For everyone’s good, start acting like you are. Maybe you’ll make a difference.

Ray Marano is associate editor of SBN. At least that's what he tells his readers. Honestly. Reach him at rmarano@sbnnet.com.

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