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September 16, 2008

Ethics Ethos

Would you feel guilty if your company paid you very well, yet dealt with customers and business partners under-handedly? When your rent is due, and you'd like to take a vacation to some place more exotic than the local strip mall, it can be hard to find your ethical streak. When the economy plummets, I have a feeling business ethics risks going with it. With your employer's and your own finances in a race to see which can go South fastest, caring whether your company's business dealings are both profitable as well as moral isn't easy.

With this potential time of desperation upon us, what are you doing to reinforce to employees that corporate values and "social responsibility" aren't just for when you feel like you have enough to be generous, but for even those times when you could use a little generosity yourself?  If I were in the shoes of a trainer responsible for delivering a corporate ethics program, I would try to team up with those in management crafting messages about pushing harder to meet financial goals. Maybe if you talk to them about it, they wouldn't mind sliding in a few sentences about employees maintaining the business ethics they agreed to when hired--even when they're working like a dog to get the company out of the dog house.  Actually, you might point out that, aside from it being the right thing to do and part of what they already agreed to do anyway, shady business practices further endanger an already ailing company from a legal and PR perspective.

Maybe the online branching-style simulations you use for ethics training could be updated or accompanied by added classroom material to illustrate the moral challenges employees may face if the economy turns as bad as it looks like it might. Either online or off (whichever you can afford, I guess), have employees compete against each other in teams with a hypothetical desperate business scenario as the challenge each group has to work through to reach profitability. Unlike other such games solely focused on which team can work most efficiently to make the most money, this game would tie ethics into the equation, punishing the groups that cheat or otherwise violate company ethics standards to make themselves more competitive. And to make it a real test, make it very easy and tempting for the groups to bend rules to suit their need to stay afloat.

Of course, being in such potentially (or are we already there?) desperate times, this exercise can't take too long or else the higher-ups risk getting annoyed about risk management/ethics education you'd like to provide. Which brings me to another point--it could be useful to remind workers about the interaction between risk management and ethics, and that they aren't necessarily synonymous. Just because a business practice is legal, and will make the company money, doesn't mean it's the way your company likes to treat business partner and customers.  From a self-serving perspective, a lot that's legal and profitable, might not be the best idea from a PR point of view. If your customers are outraged, it doesn't help to whine that what you did was legal.

Then, after you've harped on what's legal and illegal, and what's ethical and unethical, you, unfortunately, also will have to add a few words about the importance of maintaining quality of products and services during the desperation--something today's airlines hopefully are worrying about.

So, you have your work cut out for you. You have to train and encourage your workforce to win, but not by using any and all tools they can find. Desperation in business can make you feel like a caveman who's just discovered how to use his hands to make tools. It's exciting when you think of a new way to make money, but unlike an eager caveman, you have regulatory agencies, reciprocal business partnerships to maintain, and, oh yeah, those pesky customers, too.

Have you stepped up or changed your corporate ethics program now that potentially hard times are here?  Do you think your employees will stay true to your company values no matter how tough business gets?


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It is unfortunate that there may be some cases where tough economic times tempt some businesses, managers or employees to adopt less scrupulous behavior.

Particularly vulnerable are sales and marketing practices and practices relating to product quality and safety.

In tougher times, 'shortcuts' may prove tempting in such these areas.

Corporate donations are also likely to undergo a significant degree of curtailment and corporations will be increasingly reluctant to enter into any new social projects or initiatives, particularly those for which the business case is not strong.

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