New entrepreneurs tend to focus only on getting the product right, and assume that the right culture and ethics will come later simply by hiring good people. In fact, they need an early focus on developing their moral compass, as well as setting the right ethical tone. Building an ethical business is more than just compliance and meeting legal requirements, and it has big paybacks.
One 11-year classic study of over 200 companies, detailed in “Corporate Culture and Performance,” found that those working on their culture improved revenue by 516%, and increased net income by 755%. Conscious Capitalism, a popular business movement which includes a large focus on culture and ethics, claims returns 10 times higher than the S&P 500.
One of the keys to setting the right ethical tone is understanding and avoiding the myths and pitfalls of others. I saw a good summary of these in a classic book, “Ethical Leadership,” by Andrew Leigh, an expert in this area. I like his specifics for business leaders on improving and sustaining the best company cultures, and his summary of the cultural myths facing new business leaders:
- It’s easy to be ethical. This myth ignores the complexity surrounding ethical decision making, particularly within business organizations. Ethical decisions are seldom simple. For example, people often do not automatically know that they are facing an ethical choice. Any given individual may not recognize the moral scope of the issues involved.
- Business ethics are more about religion than management or leadership. Behind this myth lies the confused belief that ethics are a means of altering people’s values. The reality is different. An ethical culture deals with managing values between the individual and the company, to best handle the inevitable conflicts that crop up in every business.
- Hire only ethical people, so further time on business ethics is not needed. This is usually an excuse for not developing ethical policies and practices. These can be as simple as how to handle customer over-payments, or more complex in how to handle the choices every employee may face between conflicting customer and company interests.
- Business ethics are best left to philosophers and academics. Deal with this myth by sharing with colleagues some of the highly practical tools for making sense of the issue—such as ethics audits, behavior codes, risk strategies, targeted training and leadership guidance. Business ethics is a discipline that must be practiced every day by everyone.
- Ethics can’t be managed. While codes of behavior do not guarantee an ethical culture, they do clarify desired behavior and articulate for employees what is expected of them. Every business has complex and diverse dilemmas which are not specifically covered in documented procedures, so employees need clear values leadership for guidance.
- We’ve never broken the law so we must be ethical. Many perfectly legal actions can still be deeply unethical. As an example, companies often realize that faulty products are slipping out, but they delay a recall, sighting that strictly legal requirements are being met. Unethical behavior can even with something low key which initially goes unnoticed.
- Unethical behavior in business is just due to a few ‘bad apples.’ In reality, most unethical behavior in business happens because the environment tolerates it, usually through benign neglect. When it comes to ethics, even good people tend to be followers, and if told to do something, they will do it, without considering the ethical implications.
Company ethics are a prime example of where you and your company only get one chance for a great first impression, and if you lose it, it’s almost impossible to regain. Don’t follow the examples of institutions in the recent financial meltdown, or certain oil companies working offshore, or the many smaller company examples we have seen in our own neighborhoods.
Every business, new or old, needs to remember that an ethical culture, or lack of it, shows in the actual behavior and attitudes of all team members, rather than just in policy documents and videos from the top. A successful business is far more than a good product and a good business model—it’s equally about projecting and executing with a great culture. Can you vouch for the culture and ethics of your company, from top to bottom?