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Business ethics – why should you care?

Your business ethics are the moral principles that guide your business – take your eye off the ball for one moment and you could be in a world of trouble.

Ethics in business are slippery fish with many business leaders not realising the impact one wrong decision can have. Just ask Uber, H&M and Pret a Manger – Just three examples where leaders have chosen not to see what’s really going on and suffered the consequences – bad publicity. So what can you do to ensure your business ethics are sound?

You might think that you’d know if you were faced with an ethically dubious choice to make – sexual harassment, blatant environmental damage, or misleading packaging for instance – clearly the wrong choices – and not sustainable for long. Yet, every day we read about deceiving CEOs embezzling millions or other dishonest dealings, which could lead us into thinking that ethics is clear cut and those who are responsible were bad apples all along.

But can you be so sure? And are you willing to stake your business on it? With concrete definitions of good ethical practice, beyond the laws and regulations that businesses currently live by, becoming more difficult to identify, there are increasing numbers of scandals hitting the news recently. As ethical scandals go, few are harder to beat than the Cambridge Analytica scandal of 2018, whereby the harvesting of the personal data of millions of Facebook profiles without consent was used for political advertising purposes. This one example shows just how careful businesses need to be in our present social environment.

But it isn’t just the big media-worthy scandals. Ethics is increasingly becoming an issue for the smaller business. So connected are we by social media that one wrong move can have the world banging on the door demanding retribution. Any infraction will swiftly gain bad exposure, followed by circulation by those who are happy to disfigure your business reputation. You don’t want to be at the receiving end of that kind of publicity. So, how do you ensure you’re not sitting on an ethical time bomb;

  • Be aware of euphemistic language – ‘Pretexting’ was used to disguise phone record hacking and to lie in the Hewlett-Packard spying scandal. This example of euphemistic language masked the true nature of the misconduct until it was brought to light most disparagingly.
  • Be aware of ethical numbing – In an environment where we are repeatedly exposed to certain behaviours, these can seem to be acceptable. The S. Postal Service Pro Cycling Team began to adopt the unethical behaviour of doping, although when testifying they admitted it was wrong.
  • Be aware of routinisation – We may try to justify our behaviour by claiming that ‘this is the way we’ve always done it’ and therefore it seems normal. Perhaps behaviour has changed incrementally until eventually a completely different behaviour emerged – this is likely what happened with Carillion.
  • Be aware of shifting responsibility –By omitting information and putting the responsibility onto the consumer to discover information that might influence their decision to buy, you could be inadvertently acting unethically.

With world environmental issues in the news every day it is expected of business to do its part in reducing the impact we have. If your business is blatantly flouting that expectation then expect to, sooner or later be hauled across the coals for it. Younger people in particular are becoming more knowledgeable about ethical practices and their hyper-connectivity means hyper awareness. On the other hand, even the smallest change made for the health of the environment will have public support – by way of example, my LinkedIn feed revealed recently that Waitrose introduced its new plastic-free section in one of its branches in London – a positive endorsement for Waitrose and one that received many views and likes.

Leaders need to be aware that ethical challenges can come from unforeseen directions and be so complex as to be almost unidentifiable. However, the most astute enemy of the business may just identify and expose any dubious ethical conduct, especially those businesses who try to justify or ignore behaviours that could be construed as unethical.

You may think that you’re immune from ethical responsibility, but ethics is about more than following the rules, it is about being responsible and identifying potential ethical issues before they come and bite you on the rear end. As business leaders we are all vulnerable to the rules of ethics, and complexity, lack of understanding or self-deception will not be acceptable excuses.

Identifying any new and complex ethical issues is vital for the success and endurance of your business. Your ethical behaviours are increasingly under scrutiny and have greater consequences than ever before.

Image by Pixabay