Question Time with Mentor John – Doing it right

In today’s instant gratification world, it is easy to close an eye to when things are not done right. However, business ethics means making a conscious decision to take the decent path. Business ethics involves a set of principles or standards that guide your personal and corporate behaviour. It is about strengthening relationships with your customers, building confidence amongst employees and establishing trust with the public. Since ‘good ethics’ is obviously key for long-term business success, why do so many leaders consciously make bad decisions? Mentor John answers your questions:

Is it possible to build an ethical business culture at the workplace?

Certainly. ‘How ethical’ is the question. The industry you are in often determines the general standards of ethics. If you are in the porn movie business, don’t expect the standards to be high. If you are in education you are entitled to expect them to be very high indeed. It is somewhat like deciding what your own personal standards for yourself and your children should be. The world is a rough old place at times. Cutting a few corners is almost inevitable in a reasonably long life. But you need to be able to look in the mirror and see who you are. You are the first person who has to live with you.

As with all leadership, your personal behaviour will set an example for those around you. Example is still the greatest teacher. If you are perfect, please contact me. I’d like to meet one perfect person in my life. Even my role model, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, had a few crisp words for those who stood in her way. But she built a culture of care seldom achieved when she started her hospice. Today it is the model for all carers.

My shareholders are very demanding and set KPIs for the business that are hard to achieve ethically. What should I do when the option becomes one of behave or achieve?

It is amazing that so few companies ask their shareholders what they want – decent behaviour or top dividends. The two are, in the short term, often incompatible. Unfortunately, shareholders, who are often quite normal decent people, can turn into rapacious monsters when faced with this question. A good leader will influence them but they are the owners and so have a final say. We need much more discipline about corporate behaviour but we cannot impose this if the prime demand is for profits at any cost. Easy to be critical of those who give in to bribery when in countries where it is impossible to do business without it.

Ask your shareholders for a mandate to behave properly. If they refuse it, quit.

A few of my employees always try to take short-cuts. Sometimes they get away with it, and this is affecting how the rest behave. How can I be sure to hire ethical staff? Is there a way to weed out the bad ones during the interview?

Ask those who want to join you how they treat ethical problems. Give them a series of scenarios to comment on. Record their answers – and send them a copy of the recording after the interview. Tell them they will be monitored as to how they fulfil their commitments. Fire those who consistently break their standards. If you don’t, you are as guilty as they are. And if you don’t know what they are doing, you are guiltier than them.

I am the founder of a start-up company and occasionally make questionable ethical decisions, such as fudging data, asking staff to work long hours or paying for fake reviews. This allows me to get ahead. Once in a while is okay, isn’t it?

Asking staff to work long hours isn’t ethically wrong. It is a request. If they agree reward them as best you can. Give them a small stake in your business.

We are all entitled to show the smile not the scowl. It is natural to want to present the best picture of a growing business. A certain natural ebullience and enthusiasm is permissible. But lie at your own peril. Fake reviews will come back to bite you in an uncomfortable place. Fudging data will mean that nobody believes a word you say. Reap today on false premises and you will starve tomorrow for the same reason.

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