Good or evil? Talking practical business ethics

TBWA\RAAD Dubai's Jennifer Fischer says we need to step away from doing good vs making money

Ethics is more often discussed in classrooms and by philosophers (and in recent years by programmers in the fields of tech and AI) than in everyday life and daily business situations.

But now more than ever, after a year full of ethical dilemmas and tough decisions, we need to make ethics something we are all ready and willing to address in the workplace. However, many challenges arise in the realm of business ethics.

The biggest challenge is that too often morality comes with an all or nothing label in the business world. There’s a high ground uniquely reserved for those in social enterprises and non-profits and on the flip side, there’s a socially acceptable, free-for-all race to profit for all other companies where all that matters is maximising profit at the cost of everything else.

The second challenge is that being ethical is not easy. If you’ve been watching “The Good Place”, a comedy show about the afterlife [spoiler ahead - if you haven’t watched the series, go to Netflix right now and watch the 4 seasons before finishing this article], then you remember the big revelation that nobody has gotten into The Good Place (the show’s version of Heaven) in over 500 years and the reason is that the world has gotten so complicated that being actually good was impossible because of the chain of effect of any action or purchase.

So yes, being ethical is hard, and seemingly harder every year. But if we want to have an impact on managerial and business practice on a large scale, then we need to step away from absolutist notions defining a black and white world of “doing good” VS “making money” and become more practical.

But being good - or at least being “better”, has positive business impact at many levels.

An important one is how it impacts talent - from employee engagement, to productivity all the way to attracting and retaining top talent - because yes, while most people do like to make money, they also aspire to having a positive impact in their work environment as well as in their local communities.

Being more ethical also future proofs the company against PR crisis, or even changes in laws and regulations, allowing it to be better equipped in responding to unforeseen reputational challenges. And in an age when young generations are more aware than ever about how their own choices may impact the world around them, being ethical is even becoming a cultural trend that will have a positive impact on your brand.

So how do we make ethics more practical and applicable to any company, not just social enterprises?

Take charge

Companies become ethical or unethical one person at a time, one decision at a time but the tone should be set from the top. The worst behaviour is to let ad hoc decisions define the ethics of your business and your brand. A first step to take charge is to define as set of values.

These should not be just a list of pretty words that goes on a poster in the HR’s office wall but principles that will get applied everyday around your organisation.


Be consistent, make everyone accountable

Once you’ve finalised a list of values that mirrors your beliefs, they need to be consistently communicated and applied at every level of the organisation, from the moment an employee is recruited, to the daily catch ups.

At a brand level, this can be facilitated by drafting a set of brand behaviours and dos and don’ts. By consistently communicating, people in your organisation will feel comfortable in knowing where the lines are and will be able to make decisions that fit your corporate values.


Be willing to pay the cost

This list of values must be put to the test in real life, in real situations, like when planning what type of people to recruit, promote, retain or when identifying your next product. Values, when properly practiced, inflict pain. This is normal because their role is to limit freedom and constrain behaviours based on specific ethical principles. Every value has a cost. Even a seemingly painless value like collaboration implies that you shouldn’t hire or retain star talent that are rude and don’t play well with others.


Be ruthless about the no-nos

The most important thing that your people should know is what they should NEVER do. In every company, there are some choices that will be debatable but there are also those that are absolute no-nos. Things your business believes are truly wrong and it should never do in its race for more profit.

Things your brand should never endorse and your marketing should never plan: Maybe you will not advertise to children or partner with certain types of media. Maybe you’ll never promote a type of behaviour or associate with a specific political agenda.

This is an area where you have to be crystal clear and leave no space for doubt.


Raise the bar

In a for-profit organisation, ethics is a journey. So consider - how can you keep raising the bar? What new value can you introduce? How much further can you push a principle in order to have a more positive impact on the world? By having on-going discussions with your teams, you can keep transforming your business towards a more ethical version of itself.

In today’s society, businesses and brands have a disproportionate impact on the world. From the advertising messages to which media outlet we support with our advertising dollars, from the manufacturing, to the ingredients, from how we treat employees to how we treat customers and suppliers - the complexity is immense. Sometimes - often even - ethical decisions conflict with what is needed in order for a business to thrive or simply to survive in the global economy we live in.


But in 2021, as the world hopefully heads towards the end of a global pandemic with colossal human costs, as we struggle to activate an economic recovery, as we fight for a sustainable future for our planet, as we try to make sense of how technology should impact our societies and as we hope for communities that are more accepting of diversity, businesses can no longer just wander in an ethical void or wait for governments to regulate and impose better behaviours.

Each and every individual is now more than ever accountable to society at large and should play an active role in making better decisions, more ethical ones. Even if these are not perfect. Even if we can’t tackle everything right now. Even if we make mistakes. The least we can do is try.

This article appeared in the January 2021 issue of Marketing Society members-only publication Empower. Learn more about becoming a member of the Society, which includes Empower and many other benefits.