THE TROUBLE WITH ETHICS

Well, would you Adam ‘n’ Eve it: after my sustained rant the other week brought on by reading a catalogue of new leadership books (for those with short memories, that’s www.ideaswillhappen.com/s4tw/54_rockingleaders.htm) the last thing you would expect to happen would be one of my readers sending me his new book in the hope I might plug it in this column.  But life is full of surprises, and so you find me this week wrestling with how far to go down the ‘advertorial’ route.  And the book which inspired this sustained soul searching?  Well, in this synchronous world we live in, what else could it be but a book on how to make ethical business decisions?

Fortunately, my inability to decide whether to give a free plug to a book dovetailed nicely with my inability to decide what to write about this week; so, I sat down to employ some sophisticated decision making techniques.

You’d think that philosophers and management theorists between them would by now have cracked the challenge of how to make a perfect decision, but it seems to elude them. Those of us who prize logic above all else regularly have to endure those on the receiving end of our decisions complaining that we’re not taking their feelings into account (to which the only logical response is to look over your glasses at them and tut sympathetically.  Well, it makes me feel better anyway). Some years ago, faced with the challenge of selecting a builder to carry out a loft conversion, I undertook lengthy research on a number of firms and set up a complex decision making algorithm, only to find my wife had already given one of them the go ahead on the basis the boss of the firm had clean jeans (they turned out to be fantastic, which only makes things worse).

Can an ethical approach help us?  You’d have to ask Roger Steare, the author of the book in question (rats – I thought I might have held out for a few hundred words longer).  Actually, Roger deserves a plug for three reasons: first, he’s done what life coaches exhort us all to do, and built a business around his passion; secondly, he manages to keep a straight face while describing himself as an ‘occupational philosopher’ (if only I could think of such an elegant self description: the best I’ve ever been able to come up with is ‘organisational Dyno-rod man’); and third, having known him both as a client and colleague, I have a sneaking admiration for his relentless talent for self publicity.  (You will understand what I mean when his next book comes out and I find all these compliments blazened across the cover.)

Anyway, the book, Ethicability (the author clearly understanding very well that you can’t get businesses to buy a concept unless you can stick a ‘TM’ after it) sets out a clear structured approach to making the ‘right’ decision in the face of ethical and other dilemmas.  After reading it, I also realised why it is that businesses tend to avoid such an approach.  Let’s face it, being ethically sound seems such hard work.  While writing this column, I thought I’d pay a visit to an ethical shopping website.  I now know that, simply by virtue of typing this on a laptop made in China, using Microsoft software, my moral position is somewhere between Caligula and an estate agent – and don’t ask about the cup of tea I’m drinking as I write. 

Roger Steare’s book is founded on the heretical notion that there’s more to life than short term gain, which I suspect a lot of people will struggle with.  Just as being an ethical consumer carries the horrible price tag of eating muesli which tastes like sawdust and having to buy food from small shops staffed by sallow sales assistants who look like they should be hooked up to a drip, so running an ethical business makes it harder to exploit people for profit, which is the only proven way to Add Value To Shareholders.  Given the typical client’s ‘wash me but don’t make me wet’ position on development, attending a seminar on ethical business practice is for many the equivalent of a visit to church: you come away with a holy glow, ready to spend another week sinning like there’s no tomorrow.

What businesses really want is a way of appearing to be ethical while lining their pockets.  So, in my continuing quest to come up with a bestselling business book, I’m now working on Make Millions the Ethical Way.  And since Mr Steare describes himself as a ‘virtue ethicist’ (damn, another one I never thought of), I confidently expect a plug for this column in his next book.  After all, like any ethical individual, I know which side my bread’s buttered.

© Phil Lowe, 2006.  All rights reserved.