Thursday, August 25, 2011

Ethics–Winning At Any Cost

I overheard an interesting conversation this morning between a small business owner and a tax advisor that reminded me that ethics may be going the way of the dodo and the carrier pigeon.

This wasn’t just any tax advisor.  This was a former senior employee of a federal taxation agency.

And it wasn’t just any tax guidance this person was providing.  She was providing her client with ways to cheat the system (not just to use loopholes) in such as way as to not set off any of the internal alerts that the taxation authority might have.  By the time they are done, pretty much none of his fairly decent income (in excess of $200K per year) will be taxed or even known by the taxation authority.

This got me to thinking about what we are willing to do ethics-wise in order to win, whether professionally or personally.

A little while ago, I was solicited by someone who wanted me to vote for their company in a competition that would award startup capital and guidance to the top entrants.  Each entrant must be in business a year or less to be eligible for this funding.  When I pointed out to the CEO who had solicited me that being in business almost four years disqualified them and potentially could deprive a real startup from obtaining this essential head start, the response was that they found a loophole that allows them to enter in good conscience, since the most recent version of their product was less than a year old.  That’s  not what the rules state, but he rationalized that it made sense and within the rules.

Here’s the funny part (not really) – they are winning the competition so far.   The judges know but are ignoring the violation.  Why?  Because the competition itself is a sham, a piece of selfless promotion by an organization using it to find additional companies to sell their own services to and to find ways to take partial or total ownership of these entrants.

Each side is trying to out-scam the other, each side thinking they have fooled the other.  They deserve each other.

A few months back, a household name in the not-for-profit space asked me to bid on a significant piece of work which I happily did, reducing the price significantly because of who they are.  We had quite a number of discussions over the proposal until they admitted that they never had any money budgeted for it and never had any intention of paying for the work.  They hoped that if I spent enough time exploring it with them, that I would eventually give it to them for free out of the kindness of my heart.  This strategy was their plan all along.

However, my biggest surprise came when they became indignant over my observation that this wasn’t an ethical way to run a business.  They thought I was the one being unethical, since I wouldn’t serve a well known organization for free.

This makes me wonder if to many people, ethics are merely a perspective, one that can be skewed to serve one’s needs (and to make them feel good about themselves in the rationalization process), even though ethics appears to be fairly cut-and-dried to many of us.

It reminds me of the old joke about the two guys who were always competing for everything no matter what the cost.  One day, they were both skydiving.  As one guy drifted lazily to earth, his friend whooshed by, his parachute and spare hopelessly entangled.

As he saw his friend hurtle to earth, he began to unbuckle his chute, shouting at the top of his lungs “Oh, so it’s a race you want, is it?”.

This is the way people who are willing to sacrifice ethics are acting.  They are willing to do whatever it takes so that THEY win (or so that they think they are winning).  They just don’t think far enough ahead to see what their actions are producing in the long run.

It is true that, just as the skydiver learned, we may win when we make sacrifices in common sense or ethics.

But will it have been worth it in the long run?

Those who still adhere to ethics learn that it may take longer to win than those who don’t, but the victory is sweeter, more long-lasting and produces far greater return for themselves and others.

And they will still be standing when many who don’t care about ethics have long since vanished.

But then again, this only happens when we work hard to create such a future.

How do you think we are doing?

In service and servanthood,


PS The company that was cheating in the competition won.  However, business, like Mother Nature, is self correcting – I don’t think their success is going to be very long-lasting.  Ethics DOES make a difference.

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