Business Ethics

Sometimes life provides us with character-defining opportunities that remain with us forever. If we’re lucky, that is. These events, which occur in both our professional and our personal lives, are significant not for their particulars, but for what they say about who we are and who we are not. It is who we become as a result of these experiences-not the experiences themselves-that is most important. This is because these “choice points” articulate our values, clarify our character, and define our integrity.

I had one such experience many years ago when I first relocated to Seattle. It’s an experience that has stayed with me because it was so profound and because, to this day, I am still both humbled and humiliated by it. I had had business cards printed, and there was an error. I called the owner of the print shop and she agreed to reprint them right away. But I never returned to the printer. My finances were very tight and I’d decided it was “better” to distribute the “bad” ones rather than pay the several hundred dollars I owed her for the new version.

My tainted integrity nagged at me for more than a year before I finally phoned the woman to apologize. I never got that far. Oh, she remembered me all right. So clearly, in fact, that during our brief conversation she recounted the entire ordeal and then concluded by telling me (with not a trace of anger, I might add): “Now I’m going to hang up because I’m not going to do business with you again.” Click.

I remember putting the phone back in the cradle and staring at it, mouth agape, for quite some time. The sting of her words was minor compared to the swell of respect and admiration I felt for this woman who so succinctly, so effortlessly, demonstrated who she was and how she stood in her business. She had no reason to prove herself. She had no need for a well-polished mission statement, a finely crafted public relations summary, or a perfectly rehearsed elevator speech. Her actions neatly defined her. When she hung up, we both knew who she was.

Author and educator Benjamin Shield once said, “We vote with our actions.” I would add that it is ultimately our intentions behind those actions, not the actions themselves, that announce to the world whether we are courageous or cowardly, whether we are leaders or merely the boss, and whether we will make a positive impact or simply take up space.

If we’re going to “do the right thing” in business, we need to ask ourselves exactly and precisely why we’re doing what we’re doing-what our intended outcome is. Is it to win, to look good, or maybe to decimate the competition? Or is it to redefine excellence, showcase exceptional skills, or create positive change? Are we trying to prove who we are, or demonstrate it? The former will result in ego-minded banter while the latter will produce camaraderie, pride, and outstanding performance. Doing the right thing requires that we permanently disengage the “autopilot” in our businesses while recommitting to the core values of our decision-making processes.

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