By: Constance Lee Menefee

Are you an ethical business owner?  Would your employees and competitors agree with that assessment?

There is sometimes a gray area between what constitutes illegal and unethical behavior.  Obeying the law is not the same as deciding ethical guidelines and sticking to them.

Ethical behavior is not composed of big, obvious issues in which such and such is wrong or right.

Doing the right thing is a thousand little decisions based on principles:

  • don't take advantage of someone who is powerless
  • do not manipulate people
  • don't ask anyone else to break rules (or laws) on your behalf
  • don't obtain competitor information unethically.
These can be subtle distinctions and it is never easy to be always right.

Have you ever asked an employee (or anyone) to notarize a document without witnessing the signature? This seems like such a small matter. The employee, whose position is clearly not equal to yours, might go along in order to remain in the job. However, this tiny lapse, especially if repeated, is a sign that you are willing to cut corners. And your employees will see this as unethical even if you don't.

In our world full of institutions with red tape, there is the unwritten rule that if a company has one main number and a gatekeeper, you call there first and wind your way toward the person in authority to whom you wish to speak.

Are you unethical if you have the number you need on a business card a client shared with you and call direct? I don't think so.

What if you manage to get an unlisted home phone number for the person from someone at the company?  I think that is wrong. You may not agree, however.

It is helpful for businesses to draw up a written code of conduct that establishes a common set of expectations about behavior. Share the code with vendors and customers, too. A code of conduct should be a set of shared values.  You and your company will be stronger for having decided to be ethical and being unafraid to say so in print.

  Article originally appeared in the Cincinnati Post, March 3, 1998