Ethics and Business. What’s the point?

Ethics is an interesting subject – especially these days. Just listen to the television or your social media channels, and you’ll quickly wonder about what is or is not “ethical.”

When I went to school, my minor was philosophy and my ethics teacher defined it this way: “Ethics is an investigation of human conduct.” He described it as a science because it tries to tell us about the “good” life. Ethics is about obligations.

Now we can argue about what is or is not good, or what are or are not obligations, but I remember the example he used (I wrote it down many years ago and still have my notes). He said it this way:

“Say you are a rotten individual. And you learn geography. Does this mean that you feel obligated to change from being a rotten individual?”

He went on to explain that the obligations he was talking about can be divided into two types: physical, and moral. If you throw a piece of chalk up it will fall down. But morally, there are alternatives; gravity doesn’t apply to ethics, or what we are talking about: moral obligations. Ethics, as it turns out, is about having choices (if you slip on ice, you can’t chose not to fall. You might not fall, but you will lose your balance if you slip).

We recently got involved with a client regarding ethics. We had been serving this client for several years when he came to us and asked us to monitor ethics violations at his 22 offices throughout the country. What made this request different is that we are a marketing and advertising company. Our clients are in the business-to-business arena; most provide services or supply products that go into buildings in the commercial construction space.

When we asked why he selected us, he said that we had “integrity.” It was a high compliment, but we still wondered why he picked us. “A lot of companies have integrity,” we said, “companies that specialize in this kind of work. There must be something more behind your request.”

The client responded with this: “You answer the phone in two rings.”

Answering the phone fast has been part of our culture since we started the company 20 years ago. One of our differentiations (advertising is, after all, as or more competitive than the other industries) was service; I figured that everything else being equal, the way we win is by out-servicing our competition. It’s worked pretty well all these years, and was obviously part of the reason our client thought of us for this project.

When I continued to press the discussion, the client stated almost angrily, “Look, do you want the project or not?”

We took it. We created a website for their employees to go to either anonymously or not in order to document any ethics violations that they observed, and we trained three of our people to answer the 800 phone line we placed as part of the program (there are legal issues involved). Each month we provide a report to our client, and I’m happy to say that to date, no ethics violations have been reported by their employees.

We were awarded this project because our client viewed us as service oriented, and honest. I recall talking to a friend of mine who had a successful printing business in Pittsburg before selling it and retiring to Florida. He said that what made him successful was he delivered what he promised. “We never missed a deadline, even if we stayed up all night to get the promise accomplished. We did it. It made all the difference.”

If ethics is the investigation of human conduct to tell us what the good life is, then honesty, integrity and keeping your word are ethical characteristics. Physically, if we don’t follow the laws of our development (we don’t eat right, sleep right, etc), we die. The same is true morally. If we don’t do what is “right,” we die inside.

We debate inside our company about what is right. We call it “crossing the line.” For example, we recently were awarded a project by a new client to administrate a program to his customers. His customers comprise a market we served for many years, and we had exceptional knowledge of those people. Before awarding us the project, the new client was distrustful; how would he know, for example, that we wouldn’t “share” the information we gained from his program with our current clients? We overcame the concern with two steps. First, we assured him that we already knew more about his customers than he thought we did, and demonstrated it with a few stories. Then, we predicted what would happen during the current program he was running. When the prediction came through, we said, “Let us tabulate this information for you on our dime, and show you what we are talking about.”

In that execution, we demonstrated our in-depth knowledge of his customers, and more important, how he was being taken advantage of in terms of what was being reported; that is, the “integrity” of the information was false. The client hired us within two weeks after this test project.

Debate about what is and is not right is important, especially when the currency is information. As they say, you make money with information no one else has. The ethics involved revolves around how you got the information to begin with.

The thing about crossing the line we have always recognized is that once you cross it, you can’t get back. Which is why we don’t. And the good news is, what’s underneath all ethical decisions is the freedom to act, one way or another. Take away freedom of choice and ethics wouldn’t exist. And what fun would that be! That old saying, “Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to deceive” is no less true today than when it was first coined over 200 years ago.

For a conversation about ethics, or more information about how we monitor ethical violations, go to and talk to us. Thank you!

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