By Ron Ashe
Special to the Citizen-Times
Whenever there’s news of a corporate scandal, dishonesty or negligence, we wonder why doing the right thing is so difficult. In truth, it isn’t. Most of the time, businesses treat their customers, employees, suppliers and colleagues with honesty and integrity. Yet the temptation to cut corners or do something a bit questionable is always there, particularly when one rationalizes it as “just this once.”
The problem is, “just this once” opens the door to doing it again. If you get away with it, who will know about it? The renowned investor Warren Buffett said it best: “It takes 20 years to build a reputation, and five minutes to ruin it.”
Because the world of small business is so complex, however, we may still encounter situations where “the right thing” may not be so obvious. Options for handling it may have trade-offs that make the choice difficult, leaving you to wonder if the best you can do is something that is the “least wrong.”
Here are a few ideas to help make the right choices easier:
Make ethics a part of your ongoing education. A good place to look for help is the Josephson Institute of Ethics (josephsoninstitute.org) a nonpartisan, nonsectarian organization that develops and delivers services and materials designed “to increase ethical commitment, competence, and practice in all segments of society.” In addition to booklets, training, and other resources, the Institute offers an e-newsletter and podcasts from founder Michael Josephson.
Another helpful resource is the nonprofit Ethics Resource Center (www.ethics.org), which has been devoted to independent research and the advancement of high ethical standards and practices in public and private institutions for nearly 90 years. This group also offers free e-newsletters, survey analyses that explore the dimensions of ethics in the workplace, and a handy Ethics Toolkit to implement their ideas.
And though you may have confidence in your own values, you also want to cultivate a culture of ethics among your employees. Simply establishing a zero-tolerance policy on misrepresentation, theft or other ethics violations is not always enough. They too may face difficult ethics decisions, and be uncertain about the consequences of reporting them. Say, for example, whether or not to accept an expensive gift from a supplier. In these cases, what you don’t know may hurt you.
Put your expectations for ethical practices for your business in writing and hand them to all your employees. At the start of each fiscal year in my public service organization, every member is given a copy of our Code of Ethics and is asked to sign a commitment to adhere to its standards.
Finally, the most powerful thing a business owner can do to enforce ethical conduct is “walk the talk.” Be a model of ethical behavior to your employees, customers and the public. In real estate, the mantra is “location, location, location.” For the small business owner, it’s “reputation, reputation, reputation.”
Ron Ashe is President of Asheville SCORE. To learn more about other management issues facing your small business, contact www.ashevillescore.org. Asheville SCORE is a nonprofit providing free, confidential business mentoring and training workshops to small business owners.