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Don’t be evil: Business Ethics

Don’t be evil: Business Ethics

Corporations began trumpeting their Corporate Social Responsibility in the 80s and 90s following a series of landmark corporate scandals that gave Big Business a bad name. The corporate psychopath had emerged into the collective conscious as a new bogeyman, and companies fell over themselves to avoid being tarred with that image. Fast forward to 2018 and CSR is more crucial than ever, with pressure to toe the line coming from all sides.

A classic CSR example would be a clothing firm that is considering a cheap manufacturing option that involves poor working conditions and child slavery in Pacific rim sweatshops. The bean counters say it’s the best option for the bottom line. But with some business ethics training, that firm could avoid a questionable PR situation and boost its public image by choosing a next-best option that involves more ethical labor practices. Then, if they’ve any sense at all, they should tell the world about their exemplary ethics.

But should decisions on doing the right thing (or not) be confined to the boardroom? What if people at all levels of organizations had a knowledge of business ethics? Boardrooms contain a small number of people but the company at large contains many. Surely many people making ethical decisions, however small, is more powerful than a few senior execs paying lip service to ethics and CSR? Economist Milton Friedman said, “the only entities who can have responsibilities are individuals ... A business cannot have responsibilities.”

Management can be proactive in generating an ethical corporate culture by encouraging ethical behaviour throughout the organization. Factors such as peer pressure, personal financial position, and socio-economic status may all influence individual ethical standards. Managers and business owners should be aware of this to manage potential conflicts. They can also foster a systemic approach that raises the ethical bar of the whole organization.

Execs can go some way towards this goal by signing their staff up for a Business Ethics course that’s not too onerous or time-consuming but gets the main ideas across and helps employees to make better ethical decisions when faced with dilemmas. A good example of an introductory course would be this short and low-cost one from the Institute of Business Ethics. It’s a multilingual e-Learning package designed to support employees at all levels by raising awareness of business ethics and providing an understanding of why ethical standards in the workplace matter.

There’s probably little that can be done for the corporate psychopaths who still lurk in a few of the boardrooms of Big Business. But if the rank-and-file are educated on right and wrong in business, then there’s hope for the future.