What is it about a juicy business ethics scandal that grabs so many headlines?
Partly, it’s a guilty pleasure – it’s hard to look away when corrupt corporations or high-profile chief executives get busted in public. We boil over with righteous anger (if not a little jealousy) when power players score eight or nine-figure paydays at the expense of countless “little people” who wind up broke, dead or terminally ill.
Ethical horror stories like these can be instructive, but they’re also dangerous.
The bigger the scandal, the more imaginary distance it puts between the perpetrator and the small choices the average person makes on a daily basis. Who’s going to be hurt by that extra ten bucks on the expense report? It’s not like we’re jetting off to the Caribbean with a widow’s life savings. Most of us would never consider crossing an ethical line like that.
Or so we think.
One problem with that assumption is that few of us ever get close to a line that big, so we don’t really know for sure what might push us over it. The other is that decisions that big are rarely made in one step. They usually result from a series of tiny compromises made over a long period of time.
In his classic business book The Success Principles, Jack Canfield makes a down to earth case for being what he calls “a class act.” You and I have no control over what the fat cats get away with on Wall Street or Capitol Hill, but we do control the choices we make and the commitments we keep. Trust is eroded between coworkers and business partners every day in hundreds of little ways that never make the headlines, but they add up to big long term impacts on success and relationships.
Authors like Zig Ziglar, Stephen R. Covey, Andy Andrews and Miguel Ruiz offer similar ideas on what it means to be a class act. Here’s a sample of some of their best advice on ethics:
1. The simple truth works best.
2. If you make an appointment, show up.
3. If you can’t show up, show respect and call.
4. Keep your commitments and don’t promise things you can’t deliver.
5. If you can’t keep your commitment, do what you can to make it right.
6. Do the right thing, even when it’s the hard thing.
7. Acknowledge and thank people who invest time and effort to be of service to you – even the acknowledgement of an email can brighten the day.
The business world can be a tough place and commitments get broken. While there are some narcissists and sociopaths out there who try to game the system, usually the other party is someone like us who’s just doing the best they know how. What can you do when people break their commitments to you?
If it’s an isolated incident, try these repair tactics:
1. Confront the issue factually and directly, but with balance and respect.
2. Propose solutions based on shared interests, not opposing positions.
3. Put metrics in place to keep track of promises and results.
4. If real amends have been made, accept them and move on.
5. Forgiveness doesn’t mean accepting similar behavior in the future. A pattern of broken trust probably means it’s time to ditch the relationship, even if it’s a customer or a boss.
Author and speaker Andy Andrews suggests that instead of asking if a choice is “wrong” we should ask ourselves if it’s WISE. Each incremental step we take away from the place we recognize as our ethical center is one step closer to crossing a line that may become irreversible and carry unintended consequences. Keeping small promises to ourselves and others is the key to success and self respect.
Questions: How have you or your colleagues been affected when someone compromised their business ethics? What solution did you find and how did the parties benefit from it?