Ethics in Business 'Mistake' or Choice?
By David Goldsmith
Saturday, 29th August 2009
Very simply, you can boil most of our problems—from the sub-prime lending crisis to government officials' tax evasion shame to the Michael Phelps fiasco—down to one recurring theme: we've got to stop kidding ourselves when it comes to rationalizing wrong and/or dishonest actions. 

When someone explains away the exploits of rule breaking with another "it-was-a-mistake" excuse, when they seeming only to feel remorse when their wrong doing slips out of the closet and into the light of day, their actions are unethical.

Sure, everyone has made a mistake, and there are appropriate times for second chances and forgiveness.  But let's go easy on those who err, not those who try to get away with something.

There's a difference between a mistake and a choice. If you crash your car and your child's safety seat flops around because you didn't hook it in properly, that's a mistake.  If your child flops around because you didn't secure him or her into a carseat, that's a choice, and a bad one at that.

If you're a spokesperson for a company's products, and you get photographed puffing a bong at a frat party, you made a bad choice, a Phelpsism perhaps, NOT a mistake, and your choice could cost you a lot of money, your reputation, even your freedom.

We can keep ourselves out of a lot of jams if we'd remind ourselves more often to do the right thing from the get go. Of course, depending on the circumstances, the statement is easier to say than to do.  Like now, when the economy is squeezing businesses and organizations to do more with less, management can be tempted to take shortcuts and lie a bit here and there, justifying the unethical as means to survival.  First, remind yourself that there are always alternatives. 

Then, vow to stay on the straight and narrow.  Here are some ways to start

1)      Establish clear rules and boundaries:

No one should have to guess the organization's policy on ethics; make it black and white. When US banks receive bailout funds, they should know up front that the funds must save mortgages for families in jeopardy of losing their homes, not be allocated to multi-million-dollar bonuses for execs.

2)      Practice what you preach:

Be the example for others to emulate. Consider the times.  You live in the digital youtube generation, where everyone is watching.  Lift your shirt up at a Mardi Gras party and don't be surprised if you find the picture posted on the Net years later when you're now the headmistress at an all-girls academy…your dream job.

3)      Enforce consistent consequences:

Want ethics? Build trust through a track record of following through every time. When Treasury Secretary selection Tim Geithner was exposed for tax evasion, our government decision makers faced a choice: proceed or drop him from the list.  Ignoring the wrong doing presented a dilemma next time around when Tom Daschle was offered the position of Secretary of Health and Human Services, and his murky tax-paying record became public knowledge. 

How does a leader, like President Obama, retain credibility if he starts drawing lines after the fact, and you allow some people to get away with unethical behavior. VH1's Celebrity Rehab's program opener broadcasts famous entertainers smoking crack, yet the police don't arrest these guys. What message does that send…it's okay as long as you have a lot of money or if you're not caught in the right place under the right circumstances?

4)      Make "doing right" a priority:

On your list of priorities, doing right should hold a higher slot position than short-term gratification or early payoff. Chinese manufacturers maximized profits and won contracts for many years by using lead-based paint on kids' toys and ignoring safe regulations of food products. Then their unethical corner cutting methods crashed down around them, resulting in recalled products, lost sales, and ruined credibility; the costs of which are probably too astounding to accurately measure.  

We're entering some challenging times, where many decision makers will be tempted to stray from what they know is right in exchange for corporate or organizational survival.  Some people have already turned to the dark side; which is just one reason for our current economic mess. 

You, however, can rise above the fray by getting real with yourself about how our choices create our current situations, and how your choices, not mistakes, will likely be your ticket to solutions.  By now, no one wants to hear a facetious apology as a strategy to wipe the slate clean. 

We want responsibility.

The Strategic Alchemist, David Goldsmith, is a consultant, speaker, author, and professor who is known worldwide for improving decision makers' individual and corporate performance. Mr. Goldsmith has provided results for Fortune 200 CEOs, was recognized as NYU's Outstanding Professor the Year, was named one of Successful Meetings Magazine's 26 Hottest Speakers, and was awarded CNY's Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

To learn how you can improve your performance using these award-winning proven strategies and tactics, check out www.davidgoldsmith.com, email david@davidgoldsmith.com or call (315) 682-3157
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