The Greatest Challenge We Are All Facing Today

The Startup Business Systems Ethics

“A man without ethics is a wild beast loosed upon this world” Albert Camus

I have spoken on numerous occasions of my views that we are living in extraordinary times.

Deep down I am an optimist and I am overwhelmingly positive for our future.

However, that does not mean I am blind to the many challenges that we face today.

Whether it be the in-balance between extreme wealth and extreme poverty, access to adequate health care or just access to education as the big ticket items, it is also how we treat our environment and of course treat each other, which are areas that we need to collectively address.

Yet when I reflect on all these challenges, while also reflecting upon what I have seen over my professional career and my role in business, I keep coming back to the same theme…

You see I actually believe there is something perhaps even bigger than those challenges I have mentioned. I believe if we can somehow place greater focus on, it is possible that these other challenges will get the attention they well deserve.

What I am talking about here is that the greatest challenge we are all facing today is to address the absence of an ethical dimension to our lives.

Now I am not saying everyone is un-ethical – what I am trying to convey is that on a daily basis we are making decisions or choices that have an ethical consideration that need to be taken into account.

Have you ever read a news article or watched news broadcasts on TV and a business leader or politician etc. was caught out for some action, yet their defence was that they were not breaking any laws? Maybe they were not even breaking any company policies, or possibly even codes of conduct, but somehow when those behaviours or actions become public knowledge, we all felt disgust or disdain towards that particular individual?

Many years ago while working for the global technology firm EDS (later acquired by HP), I had the opportunity to facilitate a leadership program in which ethics was a key component. Much of the focus was around your responsibilities as a leader in terms of ethical decision making.

One exercise I recall was asking the class if it was OK to receive gifts from associates such as tickets to the football etc. How would you answer that question?

Peter Singer is a moral philosopher and currently the Ira W. DeCamp Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He specialises in applied ethics and approaches ethical issues from a secular, utilitarian perspective. In an interview several years back, he made the point that he was not necessarily prescribing an answer to people, only that they think more broadly of the consequences of their decisions.

For example, he challenged viewers that if there were starving children living next door to them, would it be more likely that they would do something to help alleviate that suffering and if that is the case, then what are they doing to help alleviate the suffering for the people they cannot see. Why are they possibly making a distinction when the need is the same?

This is of course is really challenging and at times confronting thinking, but this is really the point I am making – we need to think more broadly of the consequences of our decisions.

Coming back to my experience with EDS and the leadership program, there was a very elegant framework to assist employees navigate the minefield of all the possible situations they could be placed in, many of which may not have clear company polices, codes of conduct or even actual laws. It is what they called “modelling ethical behaviour” and I have reproduced my version of it here…

Guidelines for Ethical Decisions

Ask yourself these questions as a guide for making ethical decisions:

  • Is it legal?
  • Is it a violation of the company Code of Business Conduct?
  • How will it make you feel about yourself?
  • How will others who are affected react?
  • How would you feel if the world knew about it?
  • Does the behaviour make sense?
  • Is the outcome appropriately fair to everyone involved?
  • Will your leader and your leader’s leader approve?

I have not found any decision that I have been faced with, or even in general, where these guidelines cannot support. I have also now embraced these guidelines across my companies and while they do not necessarily represent a corporate social responsibility policy, they are nevertheless a start. We also use them as a checklist as well as discussion points for our team meetings that include both suppliers and customers.

Perhaps if you have not done so already, consider implementing your own Guidelines for Ethical Decisions and who knows, they may even contribute towards addressing what I believe is the greatest challenge we are all facing today.

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