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In an age where businesses are seeing margins squeezed as competition intensifies under the relentless forces of deregulation and globalisation, managers, business owners and employees are being continually asked to be unethical.

Want proof? Well, consider the following example of unethical behaviour. It’s 5.30pm and you’re in a rush to leave the office in order to meet your partner in 20 minutes time. The phone rings. Your workmate takes the call. It’s an important client wanting to talk to you.

Do you take the call? Remember, the calibre of your answer determines whether you are ethical or unethical.  

If you respect the significance of the client and the value of this customer to your boss’s bottom line, you might come up with: “Bill, could you tell the client that I’ve left for the day?”

In your mind it’s a win-win situation. You don’t have to give a rejection to a valuable client – it was just bad timing when they called – and you don’t want to let your partner down, as they would’ve been standing around in the cold. Unfortunately, according to the ethics police, this obliging, considerate, excuse-making person has acted unethically!

Truth comes with the territory. The starting point for working out what is and what is not an ethical action is summed up by the St James Ethics Centre’s executive director, Simon Longstaff.

“The starting point is to ask what ought one do,” Longstaff insists. “This is practical philosophy – doing what is good and right is the foundation for a good decision.”

Now Longstaff is not simply a hard-nosed theorist, and admits that he has even told the truth to his wife when she asked the scariest question of all – “How does this dress look?”

Longstaff The Brave says his wife coped his negative reply and promptly gave the offending item of clothing to her sister.

Honesty’s the policy

“We are constantly confronted with a stream of choices, from the trivial to the important,” he says. “You should tell the truth, but it can be told compassionately.”

And Longstaff says the obligation to tell the truth is even more important for accountants.

“Pursuing self-interest might be OK for people in the markets, but not for people in the professions,” he argues.

“They are bound to put other people’s interests before their own. If someone says that they want to be a member of a profession, they volunteer for self-sacrifice to a certain extent.”

As professionals, should you be committed to “what is the truth and how can it be displayed?”

Longstaff acknowledges that there are at least four strong inducements to acting unethically.

On matters that are futile, many of us might ask why they should bother with the hard road. Some people think the ethical life is simply too hard to live.

Others might be overwhelmed by the pressure of life and are simply too tired to take on ethical arguments and related issues in dealing with people.

And, finally, some of us might lack the moral courage to stand up for the ethical way.

Longstaff cannot see any merit in the old defence for unethical behaviour, which is “Everyone does it that way”.

He says we should all pursue a well-informed conscience and avoid actions that are in effect unethical but are justified in terms of ‘it was all done for a quiet life’.

When speaking of those who live their lives acquiescing to demands from bosses or clients or even loved ones to act in a way that is not right, Longstaff is blunt:

“It’s not a fit life for a human being.”

Ethics in action

Longstaff is often invited to be part of a panel of judges for business awards and explains what he looks for when searching for a company with a commitment to ethical behaviour.

“For the negative screen, it’s whether they have made questionable decisions and the way they conduct their business,” Longstaff says. “On the positive side, I want to know what the company is and what it stands for. Is it making a contribution to the broader community?”

He says he looks to see if there is an ethical framework in place that espouses the values and principles that the company stands for.

“It’s in a sense about the soul of the place,” he explains.  “Does it have soul or is it simply a piece of fiction to satisfy a marketing requirement?”

Asked to give an example of a company that had flagged its ethical credentials out for public scrutiny, Longstaff points to BHP Billiton.

“It was a charter developed under Paul Anderson and has been continued by Chip Goodyear,” he says. “It lies at the core of the decisions they make.”

Longstaff admits that he has a role on the company’s Global Ethics Panel.

“The charter is used as a touchstone and has a real effect on how decisions are made,” he says. “I have actually seen changes result, even when it has cost the company to do so.”

Work on your business, not in it. To learn how, book a complimentary business assessment today with a Switzer Business Coach.

Important information: This content has been prepared without taking account of the objectives, financial situation or needs of any particular individual. It does not constitute formal advice. For this reason, any individual should, before acting, consider the appropriateness of the information, having regard to the individual’s objectives, financial situation and needs and, if necessary, seek appropriate professional advice.


Published on: Monday, January 18, 2010

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