WHAT IS ETHICS IN BUSINESS?
People define ‘ethics’ as ‘a set of morals and principles’. But essentially what actually controls our behavior in business is our ethics. So if our choices in business are consistently bad then it means our ethics must be bad. If our choices in business are acceptable or good then it is coming from a place of good ethics.
ARE ETHICS ABSOLUTE OR RELATIVE? If we think about it carefully, people tend to set standards for themselves in relation to their constraints and challenges. After all they want to achieve their standards. But because of our environment and our resources, if the standards are set too low then our ethics will be too low and they might not be acceptable. For example: Doctors take the Hippocratic oath. This is for doctors all over the world to subscribe to the same standard of behavior and that is what defines the minimum acceptable standard. You may notice that I said – minimum acceptable. This is because of the relativity of standards. Let me make this very concrete for you with three examples.
- A particular telephone network in Nigeria gave SIM cards, air time and some other things to all the law makers in Nigeria. It wasn’t very much of an issue. In fact I doubt that anybody here even remembers that such a thing took place.
- In South Africa, I believe some lawmakers managed to buy some Mercedes Benz jeeps at a considerable discount. They actually went to jail in the end. They went to jail not for stealing the Mercedes Benz jeeps, but because they actually got it for a substantial discount that nobody else in the society would have had access to.
- There was a minister in Sweden who on getting to a super market used the credit card that was issued by the Government to pay for her groceries because she left hers behind in the office. She got back to office and issued a cheque to pay back instantly. She was dismissed for abuse of public funds.
See how relative the standards are? In Nigeria, some of these things would never be a big deal and yet Nigerian wants to do business with someone from Sweden. And you arrive at the place to negotiate prices and you think you are ethical because you have played up to the standards that are applied in Nigeria.
APPLES IN BARRELS A friend of mine from the ethics institute in South Africa says – if you put good apples in a good barrel, there is a chance of preserving them. If you put bad apples in a good barrel, would they decay? Yes. If we put good apples in a bad barrel, will they be safe? No. So are Nigerians good apples or bad apples? Everywhere there is a mixture of both good and bad apples. Even Denmark had its share of bad apples and therefore scored only a 92/100. So it’s a mix; but even if it was a good barrel and if you put good apples with the bad apples, what will we get in the end? Everything goes bad.
SELFISH or SELFLESS or SUSTAINABLE? If we make a choice thinking about ourselves alone then it becomes a selfish choice. If we make a choice thinking about other people alone, then it’s a selfless choice. Both selfishness and selflessness are not sustainable. What we need is a decision that meets our needs without damaging the needs of other people and certainly without destroying the common good. And if we can make a choice between these, then we have made by and large an ethical choice.
BOILED FROG SYNDROME I don’t know if it’s a myth or if it’s true but we are told that reptiles take in the temperature of their surrounding, isn’t that true? So the story goes that they put a frog in a beaker of water and they heated it up very slowly. The frog continued to adapt to the gradually rising temperature. It did not jump out to escape. At one point, it grew too weak and it was too late and it couldn’t jump out. It allowed itself to be boiled alive. That is the situation for many Nigerians in business. We adapt ourselves to corruption little by little. When it gets very difficult, we say – Thank God, I can still survive. Well… they robbed every house of my village but praise God they didn’t come to me. We don’t realize that we are sitting side by side. We are expected to do something about the bad apples. If not, it will come to us and we won’t be able to escape it.
IT TAKES EFFORT So ethics in business requires great effort. Every effort is supposed to identify and isolate the bad apples and fix the barrels. If you as a good apple remain in a bad barrel, it’s only a matter of time before it catches up with you. Let’s not forget that corruption is decay. It is easy to make selfish choices; it is also easy to make selfless choices, but ethical choices require extra effort to preserve self-interest and the interest of others without damaging the common good. But by doing nothing and going with the flow even though you see that everything around you is decaying is not an option, because that decay will ultimately affect you.
CONCLUSION There is something called universal ethics. We can have that in business. It is the ethics that emanates from having the right ideology. Ideology is having such strong beliefs in our head that we cannot act outside of our beliefs. As a Christian, we are expected to have such strong ideologies that we cannot even choose what everybody else is doing. That is exactly what controls our behavior. That means we recognize that there is a God, there is Heaven and there is hell and that we would rather choose to be on the right side of God. It means that we have the fear of God. And if we are making our choices out of the fear of God, we will have ethical outcomes on earth. Similarly, if we have an environment in the country where there are strong institutions and strong rules and regulations and strong laws, we know what is good and what is bad. Where that is lacking, there the ethics too will become questionable. So let us fear God and act out of that fear. That is the way we can behave with the right ethics. Otherwise we must have a code of conduct that we live up to regardless of what is going on in our environment.