Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Reexamining business school fundamentals – business ethics and communications in a multicultural context

Posted in reexamining the fundamentals by Timothy Platt on July 28, 2010

Ethical behavior resides at the core of what it means to be an organized society, and ethical norms and restrictions, like moral norms and restrictions are taught to us from early childhood in our becoming members of our communities and of our society as a whole. But not everyone recognizes let alone adheres to the same standards, and even when we do, different people can make different ethics-based decisions. The information that we have available to us for making decisions is not always complete or consistent and we approach the decisions that we make with what can be very different backgrounds, assumptions and expectations, among other things. So ethical standards and by that I mean ethically motivated restrictions, have been established into law and in a variety of contexts where trust is imperative, in order to in effect compel consistent standards and behavior here.

One area where this comes up and primarily through breach of trust and of law is in the ethical guidelines that by law govern the behaviors and decisions of government employees and elected governmental officials. Another area where ethical guidelines and principles are more frequently legislated into law is in business and in conduct in the marketplace.

So far this discussion could be as local in context and application as behavior between businesses within a small and perhaps even relatively insular local community. But one implication and effect of our increasing globalization of reach is that any real world business can and probably does deal significantly, even if not always directly, with businesses and customers who can be located essentially anywhere. If we do not sell directly to a global community our customers who we enable with our products and services do and so do our suppliers. And the more far-reaching and interconnected our dealings with customers and with other businesses in our supply and value chains, the more likely we are to encounter opportunities for confusion and disagreement on ethical standards, and certainly where that means legally defined and mandated standards.

As a perhaps extreme but nevertheless common example, behavior that might simply be viewed as good if vigorous business practice in one country and culture may be seen and even legally defined to be bribery or the taking or offering of kickbacks among other things, elsewhere.

This creates tremendous opportunity for us – and at least in principle any of us to fall into traps and avoidable problems. And these are problems that can just keep on growing as it is not just our immediately current behavior that counts here. It is also our ongoing business practice and decision making history that can come back to haunt us – and both in the countries and cultures where a pattern of behavior may be acceptable and even expected but where that can change, and in other venues as well (e.g. our own country where we live and where our business is headquartered) where that behavior might not be approved.

I find myself thinking back to experiences that I have faced and that I have observed when working in third world countries, as I write this. But there can be disparity understanding and disagreement of approach and in definition of the accepted and acceptable here, even just within the most developed nations where differing social orders and their legal systems have had the most opportunity through volume of business and through treaty to resolve their differences.

What I would offer here as an individual decision level resolution to this challenge, may sound to be an easy to state but unrealistic approach. But it is based on the experiences of my own work and career and on those of others who I have worked with. And it is at least conceptually very simple:

• Follow the dictates of your moral and ethical sense and your own conscience.
• Follow the norms and the legally mandated restrictions and opportunities of your own country and culture and certainly where that seeks to uphold a higher standard.
• And follow the norms and the legally mandated restrictions and opportunities of the countries you work with and within, and certainly where they do not violate your ingrained sense of right and wrong.
• If a given action or decision would be disallowed by any one or more of these standards consider it ethically questionable, and I add at least potentially legally risky and act accordingly.

Does this mean you will loose business opportunities? Yes, of course it does, but this also means you will not be setting yourself up for having business dealings from your past hanging over your head and waiting to be dropped into your present, and probably under the most damaging possible circumstances. In this, short term business successes with long term and essentially unending negative potential consequences are rarely if ever really worth it.

Now the problem becomes one of instilling this approach throughout your organization and as both policy and as a matter of your underlying business culture, so you can be less likely to get blind-sided by some short sighted colleague who finds themselves in over their head when making consequential decisions.

The next posting in this series will look into an issue from microeconomics as this field connects into doing business in a global setting.

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