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I just presented a keynote at an awards banquet where businesses were honored for their ethical business practices. What a rush. Celebrating excellence. Not shaking our heads and discussing the latest scandal, but holding our heads up and rewarding integrity. An. elegant trophy. Applause. A standing ovation. Recognition of exemplars of high moral character. It was a proud moment for business.


Several businesses were singled out and honored, but it was the overall theme that deserves noting. It was the acknowledgment that business has a social responsibility.  The message delivered by the eloquent CEO’s of the two award recipients was powerful…that you can have a good business by being a good business.  That success can only be sustained if every employee is held to a high standard of ethical practice.  Clearly they subscribe to the notion that if I can’t believe everything you say, I can’t believe anything you say.

I remember asking my dad, a highly successful entrepreneur, what one thing contributed the most to his success. He said there were two.  The first was knowledge of product.  You get business revenue by knowing how best to serve your customer. The second was even more important to sustaining your business.  Integrity.  Uncompromising ethics. You can sustain success in the long run only by developing a good relationship with your customers, employees, suppliers and the community. And the way to do that is to be sure you always speak the truth. No questions asked, no doubt about it.  Sometimes that means you turned away business, but that’s part of the cost of maintaining long term trust. I believe one related to good business practice and one to practicing good business.  Smart man.  Successful man.  And in the final analysis a very contented man. He could live with himself very well. 

What are your organization’s core values?  Can you tell me?  Don’t look it up.  Do they fall off the tongue?  No fair peeking at the plaque on the wall.

I found this really exceptional articulation of core values in an annual report for a very well known company. Finely written. Excellent core values. Admirable standards of conduct.  Does your organization have something akin to this? 

 Communication: We have an obligation to communicate.  Here, we take the time to talk with one another…and to listen.

Respect: We treat others as we would like to be treated ourselves. We do not tolerate abusive or disrespectful treatment.

Integrity: We work with customers and prospects openly, honestly and sincerely.   

Excellence: We are satisfied with nothing less than the very best in everything we do.  We will continue to raise the bar for everyone.  The great fun here will be for all of us to discover just how good we can really be.

Beautiful sentiments, well written.  Simple, direct and honorable. Oh.  By the way.  The words came from the 2000 annual report of Enron Corporation. Take a few moments to think about it.

It’s not well chosen words that direct human behavior.  It’s the heart and the conscience of the people who make the decisions. It’s the example set by the leadership. It’s the clear expectation of integrity, trust, honesty and morality.  On a macro level, words define the prescribed corporate culture, but it’s on the micro level that the enterprise finds its conscience. The individual decisions employees capture the essence of ethical conduct. Every person. Each decision. Every day.


How can a company assure ethical business practice?


First of all it’s important to articulate your core values.  Engage the entire staff in their development and definition.

The core values should be disseminated and accessible. If I walk into your organization and ask the first three people I meet what are your corporate core values, they should be able to tell me.

A company’s core values should not be a plaque on the wall or a forward to its annual report.  It should be a working document to be used in strategic planning, decision making, problem solving, recruitment, orientation, performance appraisals and assessment.  It should be a corporate mantra.

Talk about issues related to making decisions in the context of the core values.  Have people within the organization explore their own inclinations and choices. I frequently use an instrument that outlines several scenarios and ask people what they would do.

Incorporate ethics into your training.  Discuss standards, limits, expectations, and consequences. When is the last time you discussed ethical practices?

When mistakes are made or an error in judgment comes to light, deal with it openly and honestly.  Many times it isn’t the crime, it’s the cover-up that gets people into really big trouble.  Own your bad decisions as well as your good decisions. Learn from them. Analyze them, their impact, and their consequences. 

Be sure there are consequences of unacceptable behavior.  On all levels.  Don’t punish whistle blowers, but use the intelligence to make improvements.

Make decisions like your Mom was watching and you want to make her proud.


Side bar.

Theadore Levitt wrote in the Harvard Business Review in 1958 “Business must fight as if it were at war…gallantly, daringly, and above all not morally.” Milton Friedman, a Nobel prize winner for economics wrote in 1970 “There is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits.” 

What do you think?  Can a Nobel Prize winner be misguided?