3rd Ingredient® Part 4: The Color Of Ethics Is Gray - Part One

Jim Blasingame

More than three thousand years after Moses descended from Mt. Sinai with the Ten Commandments, acceptable behavior in our modern culture is still rooted in "Thou shall not lie," "Thou shall not steal," and so on. We learned how to behave from our parents and relatives since birth, and in our religious grounding as children: Tell the truth, play fair, don't hit, etc.

When we went off to school, our teachers introduced us to a thought that was a kind of amalgamated approach to all the commandment stuff we had learned so far: Treat others as you would want them to treat you. The Golden Rule is a handy little nugget with a catchy name, and it has created a positive, ethical foundation for millions of children just learning how to behave in society.

Teaching children how to behave is relatively easy (notice I didn't say making them behave is easy). In the world of the little guys, most things are either black or white: Did you tell the truth, or not? Does this belong to you, or not?

Then We Grew Up
In the adult world, things are more complicated. And somewhere along the way, to help us out, someone identified the concept of ethics. Webster: "Ethics - a system or code of moral standards of a particular person, group, or profession."

The operative word in this definition is "system," which Webster says can be, "a set of facts, principles, rules, etc., arranged in an orderly form."

Notice that in the definition of ethics, Webster does not mention right or wrong, honest or dishonest. Strictly speaking, everyone has ethics of some kind. The word "ethical", however, has come to mean, and is defined as, acceptable, honest, and trustworthy behavior. Sometimes it's used almost as a euphemism, as when we hear someone inquire if another person is ethical, which is a rather oblique way of asking, "Can he be trusted?"

Black, White, and Gray
Right and wrong are black and white - absolute - pure - uncomplicated. Not the least bit like a system. We develop our ethical behavioral system similar to the way an alloy is created: Blend a double handful of the issue at hand, a scoop of the circumstances we are faced with, a lump of the environment we find ourselves in, together with a full truckload of our personal behavioral standards. Then we take this mixture and, with time and pressure, forge it into a system that withstands the stress and strain of our social and business lives.

But here's why ethical behavior can be complicated: You are free to define handful, scoop, lump, and truckload as you wish. And in that definition lies your personal ethics, in the gray area.

In your life you will acquire a reputation for some level of ethical behavior. That reputation will be based on your conduct as you operate inside the gray area, between black and white.

Ego And Language
As we grow into adulthood, two things happen that shape our ethical behavior:

1. We develop an ego: who we are and what we want.

2. We learn how to use language and communication skills to establish who we are, to gain a competitive advantage for ourselves, and to justify our behavior as we go after what we want.

Without ego, language or justification, all issues would be black or white - right or wrong. But ego + language + justification = lots of gray area. I'm sure you are familiar with this now infamous, but no less classic, example of the use of language by then-president Bill Clinton, when in a test of his ethical behavior, he actually answered a question with: "That depends on what your definition of 'is' is."

Business Ethics
In business, ethical behavior becomes even more complicated for two primary reasons:

1. The nature of business. Since our business life is inherently more adversarial than our social life, the marketplace presents more opportunities for ethical dilemmas.

2. Money. One of the things I have learned in my life is that you don't really know a person until money is involved in the relationship. The love of money may or may not be the root of all evil, but it certainly has the tendency to bring out the worst in us. Money is not called "filthy lucre" for nothing.

There is a Latin term in business law you are probably familiar with, caveat emptor. English translation: Let the buyer beware. In other words, in business, with the exception of investment securities, where full disclosure is the statutory coin of the realm, it is the buyer's responsibility to find the deal points that are negative to him. It is not the seller's responsibility to presume what would be a negative for the buyer.

So, if the buyer can't determine all of the negatives through his own due diligence efforts, while it may not be your legal obligation to help him out, when does it become your ethical obligation? Do you answer the question as it was asked, which might leave something out? Or do you provide a broader answer, which addresses the spirit of the question? Enter ethics - specifically, your personal ethical system - the gray area.

Sometimes business rookies think that since negotiations can be adversarial, anything is fair as long as you get away with it. Such an unfortunate attitude does not promote ethical behavior. Everyone wants to get the best deal they can for themselves, but being deceptive, evasive, and/or untruthful is not the ethical way to achieve your goals.

But don't worry. There is a way to conduct your business successfully AND ethically at the same time, and I will tell you my thoughts on that in Part Two, next week.

Write this on a rock... There will always be an abiding tension between negotiating for an advantage and your personal ethical standards. As you road test your own ethical system in the marketplace, you will know if you have developed a successful one by the way people deal with you. Remember, it is possible to improve your ethical system and grow as an ethical businessperson.


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