Ethics Do Matter

Nov 15, 1999

I thank God every day that the business we serve (the A/E/P and environmental business) is, by and large, the most ethical “industry” you’ll find anywhere. I think most of us in this business assume the best of people and believe the solid majority of people who work in our firms are trying to do the right thing. That makes our job easy in most every way, other than the fact that we have to hold ourselves to as high a standard of behavior as we expect from those who work for us. A big part of that “standard” we are all being judged by is our ethical standard. This is all about doing the right thing instead of just doing things right. In fact, sometimes doing the right thing could be in conflict with doing something right. Most of us are confronted with these ethical dilemmas daily. We may not always recognize them, though. But occasionally, we don’t do the right thing, and the consequences are significant! For example, if you are the CFO of a firm, and your job is to manage cash flow for your company, it might benefit you to not pay a small subconsultant for services he’s provided, even though your client has paid you. What’s the rush? The subconsultant cannot afford to alienate you— you are his client. Therefore, you are doing your job (managing cash flow) well, but not doing the right thing (paying someone who provided services to you). The end result is that the subconsultant won’t want to work for you again. And even worse, no subconsultants will want to work for you once you earn the reputation of being a slow-paying client. How about deciding what you will pay someone? Let’s say that you are the Plainville office manager for large national engineering and planning firm. As the office manager, your bonus is based on the profits from your office. Profits are obviously heavily based on the costs of operating the office, and the biggest cost is labor. You have a loyal employee— call him Joe— who has worked in that office for a number of years. He’s from Plainville, and yours is the only real firm in the area. Joe makes $35K a year. In any other company, he’d be worth $45K or $50K. But you know he’s not going anywhere because he doesn’t want to leave Plainville. In fact, the new people you are bringing on board with Joe’s background are costing you $45-$50K. Now it’s time for raises. You put Joe in for a $2,000 raise because you know you don’t have to do more than that. But to do the right thing, you probably ought to pay him $40K and give him another good raise 6 months from now. The end result of underpaying Joe is that he stays on, but he gets bitter. After his productivity, morale, and work ethic are down the tubes, he starts telling the newcomers that yours is not the company to work for over the long term. Or what about serving a sleazy developer client who wants to do a project that is going to be bad for the community, but is also one you could make a lot of money on. Once again, if your charge is to build a site development business for your firm, doing things right might mean you should take the project because you can make a lot of money on it. But doing the right thing might mean turning it down. It would not enhance the long-term image of your firm to be known as an agent of a very sleazy developer. The bottom line on all of this discussion is that how you react to these situations determines how self-righteous you can be when dealing with ethics offenders inside and outside of your company. If you take the high road, you can expect smooth travelling in the future. You won’t be creating problems that need to be solved later. If you take the low road, then you better face up to the fact that you will probably step in some potholes in that road from time to time. And you’re going to get hurt. Originally published 11/15/1999

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