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Ethical Issues

“But everybody does it!”

By Christopher Bauer

Every one of us involved with meeting planning is barraged by ethical challenges every single day. Who gets the perks for travel or hotel stays? Whose products or policies may make them an inappropriate event sponsor? What about giving and receiving gifts? What information can I share with my friendly competitors?

While we rarely think of ourselves as unethical, unethical behaviour, however unconsciously or unintentionally, occurs frequently. This article will explore that disconnect and make you aware of several potentially significant costs of even unintentional unethical behaviour. Then, we’ll look at some important tools for how you can more effectively spot frequently overlooked ethical challenges on the job.

We often think of ethics as a kind of “Kumbaya” feel-good topic and forget that ethics problems can represent a serious risk to our bottom-line. Research across a wide array of industries by the Association of Certified Fraud Examiners suggests that as much as five to seven per cent of your bottom line is being lost each year to ethics related problems.

There is a long list of such problems, but primary among them are: asset mis-allocation (including everything from raiding the petty cash or supplies drawer, to outright embezzlement); flawed or ignored contracts; and inaccurate time sheets.

The biggest ethics-related cost, though, is the amount of money your organization never even sees because a client, a potential client, or referral source sees or hears something about your organization that they don’t believe is ethical; they won’t do business with you as a result!

This is where most meeting and event planners can expect to experience their greatest financial impact. How you make decisions around critical event planning issues such as dealing with perks, receiving gifts or accepting controversial sponsorship, can unwittingly alienate existing and potential customers and referral sources alike.

Most of us are raised with the notion that ethics are all about rules. In fact, ethical choices are about what we do with the rules. In other words, ethics are about the underlying values and mandates that rules bring to life. For example, most industries have explicit policies about gifts that can be given to, or accepted from, vendors. Meeting industry professionals have to try to navigate these rules daily to avoid both legal and ethical issues.

Most people do not fully appreciate that these rules are in place to prevent undue influence and conflict of interest. Without this fundamental understanding, there are myriad ways people can follow the rules to the letter and still be engaged in some kind of ethical issue. This is precisely where ethics live – in those underlying grey areas hovering around rules and policies.

If you find yourself saying, “Don’t worry, this is legal,” take an immediate step back and think about whether or not your planned behaviour is also ethical. Remember, something can be entirely legal but still be unethical.

Think about the values you and your business uphold; do your actions fully represent and underscore those values? If the answer is “No,” that’s a sure sign that you need to rethink your decision.  When your actions are out of alignment with your stated values, there’s an ethical challenge you’ve missed.

You need to draw the ethical line at any point where your behaviour is out of alignment with the values you say you have. Take this one step further to include actions that could be perceived by others to be out of alignment with your values.

Here’s the funny/vexing/important thing about ethics – there are rarely right or wrong answers. If there is a clear, obvious correct way to do something, chances are you’re talking about compliance with a rule or a moral issue where you have taken a stand based on belief or conviction. Ethics, on the other hand, are so often about the grey areas where one might reasonably argue a variety of ways and make good points from all angles.

For example, who gets travel perks: the person booking the trip or the traveller? Doesn’t the person creating an event have good reasons to fund that event as fully as possible? And, don’t event attendees also have valid reasons to not welcome support from certain sponsors?

These types of ethical dilemmas can get messy in a hurry if you don’t have some ideas about how to think your way past the dueling arguments these issues bring to the table.

Let’s talk about two powerful ways to listen and think your way through some often-complex ethical issues.

One of the easiest ways to spot an ethics issue is to notice when your actions don’t align with your stated values. That is presuming, of course, that you are absolutely clear about what your core values are. If you are unclear, one great solution is an appropriately written and implemented values statement.

A frequent problem with values statements is that they are often only public relations-type documents. To create a truly effective values statement, you’ll need to take a deep-dive to uncover your most important and persistent priorities when making decisions.

Those most important, most persistent priorities then become the core of your values statement. You will know you’ve got solid a statement of your core values when three things have occurred:

  • Your values statements will allow you or any of your employees to know, immediately, whether any behaviour is, or is not, aligned with the values you say you have.
  • When you aren’t sure how to make a decision, your values statement will provide guidance. Since ethical questions rarely have one absolute right or wrong answer, your values statement will help you know exactly what you need to consider to make the best possible decision within the given circumstances.
  • Your customers can clearly see that your decisions are guided all day and every day by your articulated values.

If you’re going to write or rewrite values statements, commit to doing the tough work it requires to do it correctly. Incomplete or poorly written values statements are a dangerous thing. Remember, it’s supposed to be getting your entire organization onto the samesled, so it had better be the right sled! If you run into a snag, don’t be afraid to get help from an ethics consultant.

This sounds a little crazy, but here is a fairly short list of rationalizations we tell ourselves when we are about to do something that’s unethical. If you do nothing more than listen for these rationalizing voices in your head, you’ll go a long way to helping yourself quickly discern when your behaviour is out of alignment with your values.

“I’m owed more than I’m getting.”
Risk: You might be prone to take something for yourself that isn’t actually supposed to be yours.

“That was a close one!”
Risk: If you are worried that someone might have caught you doing something it probably wasn’t something good!

“It’s such a small thing, what’s the big deal?”
Risk: What’s small for us could be huge for another stakeholder; if we ever find out at all, it’s usually after the damage is done.

“Everybody else does it!”
Risk: Just because everyone else does it, does not make it right! A lot of people do things they shouldn’t. Get clear about what is and isn’t acceptable behaviour to you. Once you’re clear, it really doesn’t matter if people are doing it differently. Each of us has to act in accordance with our stated values and, of course, the law.

“That’s the way we’ve always done it around here.”
Risk: Are you doing this because you know it’s right, or simply because it’s a habit? Learn to discern the difference!

“Just this once.”
Risk: Well, no, it almost certainly won’t be. We all know that once you step over the line, it gets easier to do it again and again. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a time when we can stop ourselves but it’s a whole lot easier if you don’t start.

You’re a good person. Yet, even good people can get themselves and their companies into trouble ethically and legally without the slightest intention of doing so. In fact, most ethics problems are caused by otherwise wonderful people who miss entirely that an ethical issue is before them, or they don’t know how to handle the situation correctly.

If you think you need some help sorting this out, there’s no need to go it alone. There are a number of experts out there who can help you put a more effective approach to ethics into practice. It’s a rewarding investment, not just because you know you’ll be working in an ethical manner, but also because of the very real dollars and cents you will add to your bottom line.

Christopher Bauer’s keynotes, seminars and consulting help organizations around the globe build and maintain cultures that support ethics, compliance and accountability. He also publishes a free Weekly Ethics Thought.

Appeared in Speaking of Impact, Spring 2015 Edition

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