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Ethics: Doing the Right Thing, and Doing Things Right—Revisited

In 2014, I published an article on LinkedIn with the title, “Ethics: Doing the Right Thing and Doing Things Right”. Over the past seven years, the article has garnered over three thousand views and thirty-five comments. I believe the subject of ethics in business, and in our personal lives, remains an important topic and one to revisit, because I believe those of us in positions of leadership have the obligation and responsibility to do the right thing and do things right, every day.

I wrote the original article the day after I attended an event at Santa Clara University, hosted by the Association of Fundraising Professionals, Silicon Valley Chapter. It was a panel discussion on “Ethical Dilemmas of Non-Profits, Taking a Deeper Dive”. There were a few hundred people attending, and the panel was composed of four veteran non-profit professionals. Each panel-member was given a question regarding real-life ethical situations and shared their story and experience of the situation, how they handled it, what the results were, and what they would do differently. As both a non-profit board member and a small business owner, these stories and experiences resonated with me on many levels. The panelists pointed out that there is often a difference between what is legal and what is ethical, and often ethics lead to legislation. We need to be constantly aware and aligned with what is ethical for ourselves and when acting as part of an organization, whether there is a law in place regarding the situation, or not. This applies to any business entity: non-profit, for-profit, solo-entrepreneurial business, or small or large corporation. Here are a few of my take-aways from this 2014 event, which I think are important for us all to incorporate in what we do, day-to-day, in our own practices, as business owners or as members of a team.

  • Have a written Code of Ethics with which everyone in your organization agrees and subscribes. As the leaders of our businesses or organizations, it’s our obligation and responsibility to make sure everyone on our team is familiar with this Code of Ethics.

  • ALWAYS have our Code of Ethics in alignment with the Core-Values of the organization. Our business Core-Values must also be aligned with our personal Core-Values, and our personal code of ethics. This determines how we show up and the actions we take every day of our lives.

  • Honesty, transparency, trust, integrity, respect, and communication are critical with every action we take individually and with our businesses and organizations.

  • Always have written agreements—contracts—that are understood and accepted by all parties. Agreements need to clearly state the wins/gives/gets of all parties involved. This means written agreements within the organization, with consultants, staff, board, and volunteers, as well as written agreements with clients and donors. It's a good idea to have legal advice on all agreements and have them include all the necessary “legalese” required in your industry and jurisdiction. Everyone needs to understand the agreements, which means, many times, that we go over legal documents in person, and use regular conversational language, so the agreement is totally understood and accepted by everyone.

  • It's our responsibility to perform “DueDiligence”, and it's really important to know that those on our extended teams are in alignment with our core values and business ethics. Our team includes clients, donors, volunteers, board, staff, consultants, and referral partners. Acknowledge and honor your intuition and intuitive hits about whether something or someone is ethical and acting in congruence with your Code of Ethics.

  • Things are rarely 'black and white' when it comes to ethics, especially in this time of “heart-centered” and socially conscious businesses and organizations. Sometimes it's a question of "right against right". It takes time, effort, empathy, thought, and more than one person to deal with a situation that comes up regarding ethics. Too often, choices are made in the moment, without really taking the time and effort to see that everything is in alignment with core-values and articulated ethics and see the far-reaching consequences of our actions. It's one thing to be Vision and Mission driven, and often another thing to guide an organization on the path, and to stay on the path.

  • If we are to be leaders in any organization, we must always have oversight, be involved, and have processes and systems in place to deal with breaches of ethics, when they come up.

  • I love this one! Collaboration is important, especially in the shifting and changing environment of business, media, government, politics, and society. Having a clearly articulated Code of Ethics, following it diligently through all actions, and having a strong, co-creative team will boost success, whether in the non-profit, for-profit, solo-entrepreneur, or large corporate arena.

Of course, none of this is new information—it is a great reminder of what is important and what works when "doing the right thing means doing things right". But what about the world we are living in, now, where it’s no longer a “brick and mortar” business world, and we are doing business, creating culture, and interacting on a global scale?

Andrew Choi had this comment on the original article: “When you say "legal" we know it means constitutional as decided by the courts, the legislature, and/or the executive branch. But when you say "ethics", it begs the question "according to whom?" What is the basis for our Anglo-American view on the word "ethical"?”

Good question, Andrew. The Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University, in California, suggests that ethical decisions often involve issues that are about more than what is legal or most efficient. We need to look at what produces the most good and the least harm (The Utilitarian Approach), what best respects the rights of all who have a stake (The Rights Approach), what treats people equally or proportionately (The Justice Approach), what best serves the community as a whole, not just some members (The Common Good Approach) and what leads us to act as the sort of person we want to be (The Virtue Approach). In the global society we currently find ourselves living in, I wonder if this way of looking at ethics is limited to an Anglo-American view? Might it be best to view ethics and ethical decisions as a global view?

Another comment on the original article from Tahmina Day, M.B.A.: “I would add a couple of items to the take-home message list: 1) Role modeling is a powerful tool to enforce ethics and values; 2) Clear and easy to use communication, including whistle-blowing, channels help to prevent and detect unethical behavior; 3) Incorporating practical tools, such as “a publicity test” into a decision-making process let us to avoid a rationalization trap and biases.”

These are excellent additions.

I so agree on role modeling; the panel expressed this as "Leadership from the top", and so true in any kind of organization—even families. I think of it as “mentoring”, and we, as leaders, are in the mentoring role for our employees, staff, and anyone on our extended team. Communication always needs to be clear, and appropriate channels of communication known by all. Regarding incorporating practical tools, one of the panelists offered that she always uses the "what would my mother think about my decision" technique—which is a good "pre-publicity test", and one that works well, especially if our mother was/is a role model for our personal Core-Values. Aligning our Code of Ethics with our personal and business Core-Values in all that we do, is a lifelong pursuit; it’s “walking our talk” and “living our truth”.

I just wonder how many of us follow-through with our values, ethics, thinking, and actions on a daily basis.? Do you? What challenges have you experienced regarding ethics? How did you handle the situation? What would you do differently?

Drop me a line or comment on this blog post or in social media. I believe it’s time for another conversation about the topic of Ethics: doing the right thing and doing things right.


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