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Sunday, May 15, 2011

Doing What’s Right, Even When It Feels Wrong

“If you have integrity, nothing else matters.  If you don’t have integrity, nothing else matters”.
~ Alan K. Simpson

As young children we are taught at a very early age what is right and what is wrong.  We are constantly reminded of the difference between the two.  At first it is just basic things like waiting your turn in line in the school cafeteria or not stealing another child’s toy at playtime.  We are taught that lying is never a good thing and that no one likes a liar.  Then as we grow older we discover that the lines between what is right and what is wrong are not always so well defined.  I can remember my confusion as a child when I would hear my parents or teachers lie about something.  They would explain it away as a “little white lie” that wouldn’t harm anyone.  According to that rationale a simple lie or misleading statement will have no affect on others because its intent was no harm.  If only it was that simple in the world of business. 
Until the latter part of the 20th century most major businesses operated with little regard to what is right and what is wrong as long as they were bringing in the all mighty dollar.  It seems that for most companies ethics and social responsibility was not something they were too concerned with because they felt that what they were doing wasn’t really having any kind of effect on anyone outside of the walls of their own factories and besides as long as no one else knew then it was alright.  The problem is that the business world does not operate in a vacuum. Everything in the Universe only exists because it is in relationship to everything else.  A business cannot pretend that they operate alone.  There is a constant connection to the actions of one company to others.   The idea that one company can go on operating independently from all the others and not have any kind of impact is far from accurate.  When a bank makes it a practice to make bad loans and is subsequently closed down by the regulators, the effect is far reaching. When a hotel chain takes steps to lower water usage by asking guest to use bath towels more than once, the effect is far reaching.  When a restaurant chain makes a pledge to donate a portion of every dollar to a children’s hospital, the effects is far reaching.  Customers want to do business with companies they can trust; when trust is at the core of a company, it’s easy to recognize.  Many corporations have a gained a bad reputation just by being in business.  It is important to understand that making money is not wrong in itself.  It is the manner in which some businesses conduct themselves that brings up the question of ethical behavior.
In today’s world of instant communication and access to information on pretty much any topic the term private company is almost obsolete.  Transparent seems to be the new label of choice.  When National Rental Car decided to plant trees to offset the massive carbon footprint they are responsible for or when Ben & Jerry’s recognizes that every employee is a major contributor to the company by capping the salary of the top executives that information is visible for almost anyone to see in today’s information age.  No one told National they had to plant those trees. There was not a law put in place that said for every car rented a tree must be planted.  National did it because it was great PR and it was the right thing to do if they wanted to be perceived as a “green” company.  Ben & Jerry didn’t cap C level salaries because of a lawsuit or union pressure.  They did it because they had a mission and they wanted to honor those ideas and standards they had established.  They made a commitment to their employees to do what they considered as the right thing to do.
Today most companies may only do what is right for the fear of lawsuits and bad press, but if the resulting effect is a positive change then there is no harm. Besides it seems to me that the more people do the right thing for the wrong reason the more likely they are to start doing the right thing for the right reasons.   In the 8th grade I was assigned to read ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’. Although at the age of 13 I could not completely grasp the horror of what had happen to the families in the book, I did walk away with something.  Most importantly I remember these words, “How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world”.

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