Every day I get a Google alert on corporate ethics regarding the shenanigans, good deeds, and best practices of companies throughout the world. The news can be worthy of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta or a re-telling of Hans Christian Anderson’s classic, The King’s New Clothes.
There are times when making large donations to charities or supporting worthwhile causes passes as good ethics instead of smart corporate citizenship. Ethics and pragmatic corporate community engagement are not interchangeable. One need only look at the ill-gotten gain from some banks that generously support popular social causes. There can be extraordinary disconnect between the way money is made and the causes supported and generous employee benefits.
Surprisingly, awards given for the “most ethical companies in the cosmos” based on good deeds and employee perks doesn’t necessarily include as part of the measurement aggressive marketing, quality of merchandise, and price points for goods or services benefitting sellers more than consumers.
Sometimes a non-profit organization provides a corporate sponsor, dues-paying member, or business with an indirect relationship an award for being an ethical/responsible corporate citizen. No conflict of interest here. Of course press releases get issued and it becomes a PR opportunity.
I recall being told in another life as a contributor to a magazine that published a list of ethical and great places to work in law, engineering, construction, etc. to interview certain people in particular businesses. Of course it was mere coincidence that these businesses bought a lot of ad space.
Because a company is hyper-sensitive to its environmental footprint doesn’t automatically translate into an ethical culture. To emphasize again, a company providing employee bonuses, generous leave, and community donations doesn’t make it ethical.
Over time I’ve noticed, myself included, we sometimes use words and phrases in a way that others don’t. I’ve also observed we think we know what they mean because of their familiarity or common use, but on closer review it’s not the case. Failure to define and keep distinct some of the terms used organizationally lends itself to potential problems like healthy ethical culture and good corporate citizenship.
Several years ago I travelled to another state with colleagues to visit with analysts at a think-tank. The policy organization had done some impressive work on collecting high technology job growth data. I asked my colleagues, “How are we defining high tech for purposes of our meeting to make sure we’re gathering the right information?” You’d think I spoke Martian.
In another situation, I was a member of a healthcare team where big words and phrases were often used. I thought I knew what they meant based on some of the reading I had done. Just in case, I asked the team leader to define the terms.
The definitions were not quite the same to what I had read in articles. Folks around the table chimed in and added to the growing debate and confusion. It’s similar to understanding a contract when the language isn’t air tight. Get the lawyers involved to interpret and they often disagree.
At meetings I facilitate, regardless of the agenda, I frequently define my terms. I make sure we are all working off the same page. If I’m attending a meeting, I will stop the team leader or committee chair and ask him or her to explain certain words or terms.
Without a common starting point and left to our own devices we process, perceive, and understand differently. Good corporate citizenship, for example, can too often be misused to represent an ethical culture to customers, employees, and community groups when in fact the organization has not achieved the desired result and functions under self-deception.
Paul P. Jesep, JD, MPS, MA is the author of Lost Sense of Self & the Ethics Crisis: Learn to Live and Work Ethically. He is an attorney, corporate chaplain, and does consulting on ethics, compliance, and inner wellbeing for professionals.