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Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR

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Leaders Ethical Responsibility

We all make mistakes.  But as a leader of a major corporation, small business, national security, etc. those mistakes should be minimal.  The moment you accept the responsibility, the compensation, the perks, etc.  Your responsibility to ethics becomes so much more than it was when you were rank and file.  Ethical leadership should be practiced all the time by anyone in a leadership position – whether that position is formal or informal, intentional or unintentional. There are no times when it’s more appropriate than others, nor are there people for whom it is more appropriate than for others.

There are definitely times when ethical leadership is more difficult than not – when there are hard choices to make, or when the right choice is clear but unpleasant (confronting a nice person who’s simply not doing his job, and making everyone else’s harder as a result, for example, or acting against your own self-interest). In fact, the difficult times are when ethical leadership is most important, because the stakes are higher.

The stakes in ethical leadership may also vary widely, depending on the level and responsibilities of the leadership in question. Few leaders of business organizations find themselves faced with the kinds of life-and-death decisions that may be experienced by national leaders.  Yet their decisions can still have serious ethical and human consequences, even though those consequences may play out in a more limited sphere.

Ethical leadership is part – although by no means all – of the definition of good leadership. Being an ethical leader is a full-time job – it isn’t something you can put on and off at will. You either are or you aren’t, and if you are, you have to try to be one all the time.

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Business Ethics – It’s not Rocket Science

“The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do… the hard part is doing it!”

U.S. Army General H. Norman Schwarzkopf

Likewise, the answer to most business problems is usually obvious as well.

Consider this – when was the last time you were really stumped for a solution to a problem?  In most cases, the hardest things about solving the problem were the obstacles of personalities, politics, or cost.  Taken together, these obstacles usually make the obvious solution very hard if not impossible to implement.  These are failures of an organization’s values, guiding principles, and ethics.

Several years ago a friends of mine was moving her elderly mother closer to her home due to her declining health.  Her mom had sold her home and hired a moving company to move her furniture and transport her car via trailer from Boston to Florida (primarily to minimize the mileage).  When the moving van and car arrived, it was obvious that the car had not been transported but driven instead.  When questioned, the driver admitted that they had driven the car and not transported it as they had been contracted to do.

To help her out I called the moving company’s main office.   The representative asked what I wanted them to do about it.  My only reply was “What would you expect someone to do if it was your mother!” Shortly thereafter, the driver came back to tell us that they were refunding the cost of transporting the car.

When a customer calls about a problem with your product or service. You generally know right off-hand what the right thing to do is: either fix it, replace it, or refund their money.  But company management may complain that “if we fix every problem for every customer then how are we supposed to make a profit?”  Well, if your company’s product or service has so many customer problems that fixing them impacts profits, then fix the product or service!  It really isn’t rocket science!

If the only reason not to do it just like you would for your mother is the cost to the company, where do you think the savings to the company is coming from?  It’s coming from your customer’s wallet.  And if it’s not fair to your mother, what makes it fair to your customer?

The customer’s complaints (whether you like it or not) are a part of your company’s quality control process.  If you’re a proactive company, then you’ll have worked out all the bugs before they even became an issue with your customer.  Unfortunately in their rush for quick profits, many companies out there let their customer’s do all the beta testing for them.

One of the unintended consequences of making unethical or dishonest decisions in dealing with your customers is the message it sends to your employees: that you’ll mistreat them the same way whenever you think it’s in your best interest to do so.  If you don’t care about your customers, then how can you expect your employees to care about them or the company for that matter?


So here are some suggestions for creating an environment where people just do the right thing:

If a customer’s product or service failed the answer is simple and obvious; either fix it, replace it, or give them their money back.  If the customer broke it, then don’t!

Make sure your corporate policies, organizational politics, management personalities, and cost focus don’t interfere with the obvious solutions to most customer problems.

Generally speaking, if you have to ask yourself if what you are planning to do is the right thing, then it probably isn’t!

When deciding a course of action, the best question you can ask yourself is, “Would I do it this way if I were doing this for my mother?”

Obviously, no company or individual can live anywhere near perfection, but the real world test is how hard the company or individual decision maker is trying to do the right thing, and how quickly they’re trying to fairly resolve problems.  Remember, doing the right thing isn’t rocket science!