Derek shifted uncomfortably in his chair. He knew he was in for some tough talk from his boss, Pat. Yet Derek had to admit he really didn’t understand what he had done wrong. And that was the problem.
Pat sat down across from Derek. "I just don’t understand how you made the decision not to return the excess property to Miles Office Systems," she began. "We signed a contract with them that stated we would pay $155,000 for the modular furniture at a significant discount, but that we would return any pieces we didn’t use. So why didn’t you return the excess material?"
"They’ll never know it’s ‘excess’ and we can keep it for our use and save some money. That’s what you want, right—to save money?" Derek said.
"But that’s not how we do business," Pat declared.
"How would I know?" Derek replied.
He was right. He didn’t know. He’d worked for Systec for two years, and he always tried to get the best deal for the company—and himself. Pat worked for the company from the beginning eight years ago. She was a part of the team who sacrificed for the success of the firm, but with a keen sense of operating values.
Systec is like many companies. When it comes to business ethics, there may be high standards. In practice, however, the attitude often is either "they ought to know," or, "we’ll know ethics when we see them."
A recent study on business ethics by the consulting firm Hill & Knowlton confirms that Systec is not alone.
While nearly 80 percent of company executives surveyed professed the importance of operating values and ethical standards, fewer than one-quarter had any specific written policies on ethical standards, nor any direct connection between company value statements and best practices.
If companies and businesses want to operate with some consistent ethical standards, three steps are required.
And yes, they do require some work—hard work—but work that pays off in fewer lapses in judgment or embarrassing and awkward confrontations, and in better decisions.
- State your values. Don’t assume everyone knows them. Be sure there’s consistency between stated values and operational values.
Get together in a retreat format and let a facilitator guide your discussion. Think through how your corporate values have guided choices until now.
- Train your values. Use your business as a living ethics laboratory. Use case studies, including review of key decisions within the business itself. Mistakes can be a great teaching opportunity as well as a point of reinforcement of key standards.
- Identify best practices. Showing how values connect to operating practices and key decisions can help every employee understand how even the most basic business decisions ultimately are based in values. IBI