Ethics in Business: Values that Start with You

The business owner who starts off his or her business at the dining room table in the evenings and grows it into a multi-staff business is faced with a number of challenges. One of those challenges is the transference of values and ethics from the business owner to the staff.

The business owner who starts off his or her business at the dining room table in the evenings and grows it into a multi-staff business is faced with a number of challenges. One of those challenges is the transference of values and ethics from the business owner to the staff.

Outsiders who have never started their own business might naively assume that this transference is very easy and happens naturally. Unfortunately, that is not the case. It is not easy to create a top-down ethical environment. However, a top- down approach is exactly what is needed.

When the business consisted of just one person, those values and ethics came out of who the business owner was. But when the business blossomed, new people were added to the staff roster who brought their own view of ethics with them. These ethic sets are not always congruent so the business owner may have a set of ethics and his or her employees may each have their own set of values and ethics. But, what one person perceives as acceptable another might not.

So if a business owner wants his or her employees to match the values and ethics that he or she supports, that owner needs to embed those ethics within the company. It starts with a values statement (or a series of values statements) such as…

  • We will treat the customer fairly.
  • We will never talk poorly about the competition.
  • We will create an environment where honesty is the best policy.

As well, additional steps need to be put in place to assist people making ethical decisions. These include constant cash register balancing on the hour and signed off by a manager or a random product quality assurance check once every 15 minutes. These encourage ethics by policing them.

These are stated values and most corporations have them. Stated values look nice on a wall and sound nice in a marketing message and help to recruit new employees who want to believe that their new employer has the customer’s best interests at heart…

…but the reality is that people can get around them. It happens all the time. Stated values are ignored. Those additional “policing” steps are circumvented when a loophole is discovered. Once ethical employees may convince themselves that stealing from customers or their employer is acceptable.

So what can you, as a business owner, do? If you have staff, is it too late to do anything?

It starts with the business owner: he or she should make sure that their actions are congruent with the stated set of values. If the values say one thing but the owner does another then there is little reason for employees to “buy in” to the stated value set.

But there’s something else, yet, that many people overlook: measurables. Many companies have a stated value set (for example) of offering the best value for their customer…but then reward payment, bonuses, or promotions based on sales…which encourages the staff to sell more than what the customer needs. A prime example of this is the extended warranty on electronic equipment. Most people see that it is not a great value and the corporations that sell it claim to be ethical and yet those salespeople receive large bonuses for selling the warranty.

Ethics starts with the business owner and needs to be stated clearly. But it also needs to be embedded in the culture of the business through policies as well as actions by the leadership, and in the rewards and remuneration program.

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