Ethics is personal. Just as everybody thinks they have a good sense of humour, so everybody thinks they are ethical. That’s why it can be a challenge to define what we mean by “doing business ethically”. Sometimes, unethical behaviour may be so ingrained as to be considered ‘the way business is done around here’, and may not be considered unethical at all.
By the coffee machine, in the meeting room, at the pub, you will often hear people talking about ethics without even realising it; issues of fairness, trust, conflicts, dilemmas.
Way back in the twentieth century, I worked as an independent music PR for up and coming bands. For ‘the next big things’ to get exposure, we needed to get journalists to see them play live. One of the problems (aside, perhaps, from lack of talent or musical ability!) was that journalists believed we operated in ‘PR time’ - about half an hour earlier than the real stage time. This was because we believed the journalists were always late.
This basic lack of trust – to give the correct time – meant that inevitably, the journalists didn’t make it in time to see the band, and Crazy Gods of Endless Noise never received their gig review, and failed to become the international megastars they were meant to be.
Trust needs to be earned – and all of us who are in communications need to make sure we are worthy of respect, that we can be trusted. Applying ethics to all aspects of our decision-making will help us earn that trust.
The Institute of Business Ethics defines business ethics as the application of ethical values, (such as fairness, honesty, openness, integrity), to business behaviour. It is about how business is done. Are colleagues treated with dignity and respect? Are clients treated fairly? Are suppliers paid on-time? Does the business acknowledge its responsibilities to wider society?
Ethical values are the compass by which we live our life. They are what is important to us.
For example, do you feel compelled to give an honest quote, even if that means losing out to the competition (who may not be so honest)?
Would you turn down a big client if they didn’t share your values, even if it meant you would have been able to give your hard-working staff a payrise?
Would you tell the truth, even if it meant losing your job?
Would you stand up to your boss if they were asking you to do something unethical, even if it meant losing your bonus?
Why is it important?
We are in the reputations business. And reputations are based not only on how a company delivers its services but on how it values its relationships with its clients, employees, suppliers and wider society. Indeed, the success of any organisation depends on it.
Trust in the professions is vital; it is the reason you go to a doctor when you’re ill, rather than just taking the medical advice of your neighbour; the reason you trust your accounts to an accountant rather than a teenager who’s good at maths; the reason you commission an architect to design your house rather than draw them yourself. We employ professionals over amateurs because we can be sure that their professional body holds them to the highest standards of conduct.
Ethics is a balancing act.
Ethical values play a critical role in building the trusting relationship between business and society, just as PR professionals liaise between a client and their public. PRCA members put their clients first while recognising the interests of all stakeholders. They balance that with operating reliably and honestly and being open both in explaining a client’s own position while being willing to listen to others.
Being ethical takes courage. Do you have that courage?