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November 2013

The Results Must Stand Up To Clear Scrutiny

Being ethical is not the same thing as following the law because laws are often passed that deviate from what is ethical. This is done ostensibly to address perceived injustices, and some of the examples noted in an earlier blog on this subject were taxes, and government set-asides. Also what we perceive as both unethical and illegal is, in some countries, both ethical and legal, and one example of this is that in some countries laws have been written that deny women the right to an education.

While it is clear that ethics and law do not march in lockstep, it cannot be argued that doing what is right ethically and doing what is right legally are linked together in ways that matter. What makes this subject a challenge for people and for businesses is that some behaviors, both ethical and unethical, can be legal. This sometimes creates a curious paradox where certain behaviors, while not ethical, are legal, and certain behaviors, if they are unethical, are also illegal. This becomes very clear when the light is shone on behavior seen as unethical in this country, but not seen as such in other countries that have different norms.

It is easy to treat this discussion as an academic exercise, except that real world examples make my case for me.  Just in the past two weeks it was reported that the multi-national oil services company Weatherford International agreed to pay fines in excess of $250 Million dollars for violating the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. This was not an isolated instance because companies such as Baker-Hughes and Siemens also were found to have violated this law. When cases like these hit the news, the coverage can be extensive and last for a long time.

When reading about cases such as these, it is easy to overlook that Americans are among the most ethical people on earth, and American companies among the most honest in the world. What these cases should also remind us about is that ethics is a discipline like any other and people need to be engaged in this in their private life and in their work.

At one time, work place safety did not have the cultural emphasis that it has today, but now no one questions the fact that safety meetings take place daily or weekly in virtually every workplace in America. The value of a constant focus on safety was justified more than two decades ago. By the same token, ethics is not something that exists only in a policy paper or a written procedure that is dusted off once or twice a year where people check the box confirming they have read it.

In an era where commerce takes one across the country and across the world to conduct business, it is increasing important that employees at all levels have a well-honed understanding of what constitutes ethical behavior. The end goal for a person’s endeavors is for their actions to stand up in the hard light of day.

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