A Publication of WTVP

Have you ever looked for a really good book on business ethics? Such a book has to be legally correct and morally well grounded. More than that, though, the author has to be practical, and he or she must understand the dilemmas we typically face in business. That kind of book is very hard to find.

Normally I don’t recommend books in this column, but I’ve come across a new book that meets these criteria very well. The book, written by Clinton W. McLemore, is entitled Street-Smart Ethics: Succeeding in Business Without Selling Your Soul. McLemore, president of Relational Dynamics, Inc., is a psychologist, and he has served as a consultant to more than 25 Fortune 500 companies, such as American Airlines, Unocal Corporation, and AT&T. So he knows both inside and out what we face in our own business situations.

“Ethical dilemmas often arise on short notice,” McLemore writes. “Life will be moving along smoothly when, suddenly, you have to make gut-wrenching decisions with serious long-term consequences.”

So many ethical dilemmas are complex and subtle, he adds, and written codes of ethical conduct aren’t much help, important as they are to have. “They are minimally helpful when you have to decide which is the lesser of two evils—and such dilemmas and decisions arise frequently.” Sometimes you have to toss out the code and apply carefully considered wisdom.

There’s one constant question when ethical dilemmas become complex: what are the elements of personal liability? Clearly there’s a legal sense to this issue, but more than that, we have to evaluate the standing the other party has to use. Legally we may describe this position as a “standing to sue,” but the moral issue, according to McLemore, is deeper and more compelling: what’s our duty to the other party involved? 

It’s a natural human tendency to shirk the question of duty and ask instead, “How can I minimize the damage to myself and others?” Or we can ask more bluntly, “What do I need to do to save my own behind?” The fact remains, though, that when we’re an employee, or a government official, or in a family or personal situation—in short, when we’re in some kind of relationship holding some kind of trust—we do have a duty to the other. McLemore asks again and again: how do we understand that duty and that personal liability?

He encourages us to ask four questions. First, to whom (individuals, groups, or organizations) do I owe duties? Secondly, what would a reasonable person of ordinary prudence, working in a comparable organization, do in this or a similar situation? Third, could specific injury occur, and to whom, and how serious might it be? Finally, by failing to perform a duty, will I be the cause of whatever damage is done? He provides case studies to put these questions to work.

There are very few references in our time to duties. Some of us remember President Kennedy’s inspiring comment, “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” That sums up a notion of duty we willingly embrace. We face a lot of ethical dilemmas, however, because we have a sense of entitlement (someone owes something to me) and evasion of responsibility (someone else is responsible for the problem).

As a manager or supervisor, what kind of duty do you have to your employer? To the employee? As a business owner, what kind of duty do you have to your community? To your customer? Normally, we don’t think through these kinds of questions, except when a dilemma occurs. A well-managed company with a clearly stated set of operating values provides tools for those who have any dealing with that enterprise to understand what their duty is to the company, and what the company’s duty is to them. These are larger and more strategic questions that deserve some reflection and careful consideration—and that have very practical outcomes in training and development, too. They also are modeled, mentored, learned, and acquired by example.

Books like Street Smart Ethics are rare, which is a telling comment on its own. Read and digest it, and consider it a gift of wisdom to guide you in your ethical decision-making. More than that, use it as the foundation for questions to ask managers and supervisors in training, and distill the lessons for front-line employees and customers. Our entire social fabric will be strengthened in the Peoria area if we consider the duty we owe one another to make central Illinois both livable and profitable. IBI