Can Business be Ethical and Successful?
Most people will tell you that “business ethics” is a contradiction in terms. “Impossible!” they say. “You have to do everything you can to give customers what they want and increase shareholder value. No one can put ethics before the bottom line and succeed in today’s business climate. Ethics just can’t be a top priority.” And unfortunately, in most cases this view seems to be winning.
What can we do when it seems the bad guys always come out on top? How can we compete in a world where customers ask for incentives that walk a fine line between good service and illegal kickbacks, where unscrupulous salespeople close the deal because they lie, where boardrooms and shareholders alike are screaming for ever-increasing profits while clients demand the lowest possible price, where every bad corporate citizen subjected to a fine knows there are thirty other companies doing the exact same thing?
There is a high road to success, one where people live and work according to a set of values, ethics and principles that can make them feel good about themselves and the job they do. More and more companies are learning the power of the high road—they’re creating standards for themselves and their employees; they’re doing business ethically; and they’re acting as good corporate citizens in their communities. As a result, people are proud to work for these companies, customers are proud to buy from them, and shareholders are proud to invest in them.
I believe the high road can actually create greater wealth and success in the long term. Material wealth may appear in the form of customer and employee loyalty, community support, and steady, sustained growth. But the less tangible wealth of good will and inner certainty are far more important in the long run. We each have to live with ourselves, and our ethics will determine how good that life is, inside our own heads and hearts as well as inside our companies.
Taking the high road in today’s climate of compromise isn’t easy. After all, while the low road is paved with easy decisions and immediate payoffs, the high road is full of the potholes of tough decisions and delayed gratification. The high road requires commitment—the willingness to decide what you stand for and how you want your company to be seen. It demands that each of us make choices daily between the easy way and the right way, between getting the sale unethically and not getting the sale at all, between “going with the flow” and standing like a rock against the prevailing tide of ethical compromise.
Ultimately, the benefits of taking the high road are enormous. The high road may not lead you to quick and easy success, but it will enable you to look in the mirror every night and like who you see there. It will allow you to look in the faces of your customers, your boss and your colleagues knowing you have done your best for them, for yourself, and for the greater good. And it will enable you to stand before your children as an example rather than a warning.