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Making a Case for Business (Marketing) Ethics

Recently, I hear a lot of people saying, “The end justifies the means.” That little cynical statement originates with Niccolò Machiavelli in his seminal work, The Prince, which is a blueprint for how to attain and retain power – at all costs. (Check my book Truth and Dare: Inside Out Marketing to look at the nest of assumptions behind that purpose!) The ethics our “Prince” would need to apply would be the following:

  1. It is better to be stingy than generous.

  2. It is better to be cruel than merciful.

  3. It is better to break promises if keeping them would be against one’s interests.

  4. Princes must avoid making themselves hated and despised; the goodwill of the people is a better defense than any fortress.

  5. Princes should undertake great projects to enhance their reputation.

  6. Princes should choose wise advisors and avoid flatterers.

Our Prince values one, and only one, thing: power. How positively medieval!

Today, post-Enlightenment, we flatter ourselves that we value many things, such as collaboration, communication, commitment, trust, integrity, honesty, love, justice, compassion, abundance, happiness, freedom, health, innovation, and, depending on the person or organization, hundreds more. However, as my post, So What If You Cry At Work? states:

“Out of 120 Million people in the workplace in the United States alone, at least half of us have been shocked to witness unexpected and unethical behaviors, from illicit affairs, to drugs and alcohol, theft, misuse of company privilege, access or authority, lying, insider information trading, under the table dealings, and outright unlawful activities. Some studies say 60 million of us have personally witnessed such actions in our own workplace.”

With those sort of numbers, we are not so very far removed from our Prince’s activities at all, and the results are frustrating at best, and frightening at worst.

I propose that Niccoló was actually very close to right, but still, very, very, very wrong, nonetheless. The end does not justify the means – the end reflects the means. One word changes everything. What we do and say, and how we act (the means) leaves an indelible impression on the result. Ill-gotten results do not hold up well to the test of time, and create a ripple effect that generates even greater conflict and discord. To quote another phrase, “Karma can be a bitch.” That’s not just the weak crying out helplessly – it is written large across our headlines, as well as in the rise and fall of major organizations every day.

The Case for Ethics #1: Retaining Goodwill of “The People.” If we are to claim to value things such as integrity, trust and collaboration – as most organizations today do claim in their “core values”, we must embody those, not only personally, but professionally as well. The reason, psychologists agree, is that we, as humans, do register and recognize the dissonance between words and actions at a subconscious level, even if we don’t on a conscious one. The result is a mistrust, and ultimately, a rejection of the individual or organization that is presenting the dissonance. This affects corporate culture as well as the relationship with customers. Get out of alignment with your employees and your customers and watch your market share shrink.

The Case for Ethics #2: Unethical Behavior Cannot Be Managed. I actually had a business partner once who proudly affirmed his disdain for integrity in business. (I was in denial, and I think he was a fan of The Prince.) Needless to say, we are no longer business partners. When someone is willing to be unethical “just this once,” or only in a certain aspect of their life, then two things happen: the first is their own boundaries begin to erode around what is personally (or organizationally) acceptable, and the second is that anyone who is aware of their lack of ethics in one area will presume they are at least capable of unethical behavior in other areas. The result is that the unethical person/organization loses credibility both with themselves and others. Any leverage or gratification they hoped to achieve in the process is always and forevermore at risk then, which is why we are so afraid to “get caught.” Additionally, many recipients of unethical behavior will retaliate. This creates discord and distraction from any growth until the conflict is resolved. In short, unethical behavior sets up a lose-lose scenario that can be extremely difficult to get out of.

The Case for Ethics #3: There Are No Innocent Bystanders. There’s that saying, “If you can spot it, you got it.” Anyone who witnesses unethical behavior is affected by it, even if, as many do, they turn a blind eye to it. We cannot un-see or un-know what we know. If we do not stand up and demand to be treated ethically, and that our coworkers and customers are also treated ethically, then we are just as unethical as the actual perpetrator in our complicity.

Of course, few, if any, of us are 100% in alignment with our personal ethics all the time, but if we value a relationship, we clean up our behavior right away, and don’t repeat it. Companies can, and do, take this amending action as well when they slip. We make a correction because we realize that the prime reason for ethics, and societal rules of behavior, are to operate harmoniously for the benefit of the majority of parties involved, and this requires trust of intention of two very basic things: that we mean each other no harm, and that we are as vested in the best interests of the other as we are in our own.

If we treat ethics as a weak, untenable ideal, we misunderstand it badly. Ethics is the glue that binds us together. To stand up for the ethical approach in a sea (60 million strong, at least) of the unethical requires real strength, fortitude and courage. It means the possibility of admitting the times we compromised our own ethics. And yet, if we do not, we send the clear message that all rules are out the window – that none of us are in this together – that the one who outwits their fellow, wins to the other’s detriment – so then we all must allow that it will only be a matter of time till a more ruthless and unethical and power-hungry Prince will present himself to unseat us.

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