It always amuses me when someone feels the need to tell me that they are honest, trustworthy and a person of their word. Even moreso when they use phrases like “to be completely honest with you” (what, you weren’t before??) or “you can trust me, I’m a fair guy”. These types of “assurances” don’t fill me with confidence – in fact they are more likely to arouse suspicion because if they are true then they shouldn’t need to be said at all.

Maybe I’m old fashioned (or been burnt too many times) but I put much greater stock in a person’s actions over their words – especially when it has been demonstrated by consistent behaviour over a long period of time.

This got me thinking about how important ethics and integrity are not only in business but in life generally.  I remembering reading a book entitled “The Power of Ethical Management” by Ken Blanchard & Norman Vincent Peale which provided a three point ethics check which can be applied to any decision you take. The questions were:

  • Is it legal?
  • Is it balanced?
  • How will it make me feel about myself?

These are great questions that cut through the noise (and grey areas) to get to the heart of ethical behaviour.

Is it legal? This seems to be a basic question but it is more than just about “breaking the law” – it also includes the need to operate within agreed company policy and not to do anything that is improper, illegal or immoral that could harm or embarrass the company. If you can’t answer yes to this question then there is no point in considering the next two questions.

Is it balanced? Or more importantly – is it fair? Actions that result in one party winning big and the other losing big invariably cause problems later – especially if it is a regular occurrence. Trust is eroded and it will become harder to do business in the future. It is better to ensure that both parties do “ok” from any deal. This doesn’t mean you can’t be tough, negotiate hard and demand superior performance from everyone you deal with. You can and you should. What you must do, however, is leave some “meat on the bone” for those relationships that are important to you now and in the future. If they don’t prosper, then neither may you.

How will it make me feel about myself? Would I be proud or ashamed? Would I tell my spouse or kids about it (without sugar-coating the facts)? Would I like to see it on the evening news? These are sobering questions that are perhaps best summed up by the old Chinese proverb, “a clear conscience never fears a midnight knock at the door.”

Getting three “yeses” is a tough assignment but a fabulous way to do business. Ethical businesses do better and last longer than unethical businesses – that should be reason enough to act ethically. Some businesses ignore this however and choose a different path perhaps looking for a short cut to success. There aren’t many of those unfortunately.

The problem is that you can’t undo history and “unethical” actions taken years ago will be remembered by someone out there (regulators, competitors etc) even if you thought it was forgotten. Just hope that they don’t have the means and the will to hold you accountable for them in the future…