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Welcome to “Business Brief with…” Business Brief asks presidents and CEO’s of companies at the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center (VTCRC) one question… “What key lesson have you learned in business that would help others?”

Please enjoy Joe Meredith’s perspective on the question…

A key lesson from four decades of managing people and organizations that immediately jumps to mind is to act ethically at all times and in all places. Seems like it should be an easy thing to do. However, as much as we engineers hate to admit it, there are a lot of things that we have to manage in the grey region between right and wrong.

So what is ethics? My favorite definition is the skill of making thoughtful, professional, value-based, and fitting choices of action that affects you and others. If it is a skill, it can be learned. Thoughtful means that we can use a process of reasoning, creativity, and imagination to make choices. Professionalism means that we are going to be accountable for our decision. Value-based means that our decisions can be justified. Fitting means that the decisions must be made under unique, difficult and ambiguous circumstances. If an issue does not have a significant impact on you and others, it is not an ethical issue.

One challenging domain to act ethically in is personnel management. We all intend to treat our employees ethically but budgets, corporate rules, and the law often stand in the way. Is it ethical for new employees to make higher salaries with no experience compared to existing employees who have been loyal to the company for years? Is it ethical to have to construct a normal distribution of salary increases when we’ve spent the entire budget year trying to make everyone a high performer who exceeds our expectations? Are Federal preference programs ethical? Are we inadvertently encouraging our employees to work for other companies in order to be appropriately compensated for their experience? Admittedly, small entrepreneurial companies have an advantage when dealing with these issues. Larger companies often create well-intentioned policies to ensure equality only to create situations that are unethical.

Another challenging domain that more and more companies are struggling with is international business. For example, in many cultures, bribery is an accepted part of a business transaction. Compensation models often assume that bribery will be part of a person’s financial package. “When in Rome, do as the Romans do” is an unethical strategy that may even send you to jail for a violation of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. As the world gets flatter, the temptations will be greater as cultures attempt to do business with each other. The question arises, for example, ought a company obey the laws of its home country, or should it follow the less stringent laws of a country in which it does business? Problems can occur in many areas like child labor, employee safety, work hours, wages, discrimination, and environmental protection laws.

It has been said that ethics are what guide our actions when no one else is watching. Who’s watching are our employees? Deloitte & Touche did a workplace survey in 2007 that asked more than 1000 adults employed in full or part-time positions, to identify the top factors in promoting an ethical workplace. 42% ranked the behavior of management and 35% rated the behavior of a direct supervisor as setting the tone of the atmosphere. Most of the time, we judge people’s characters not on the basis of grand declarations they may make but on relatively minor behavioral traits. Seemingly mundane actions can speak volumes.

The Deloitte & Touche survey also showed the 91% of employed adults polled believe that employees are more likely to behave ethically at work when they have a good work-life balance.

I have long felt that balancing work with life interests is crucial to building strong ethical character. Think about it – investing all our time and energy – putting everything on the line for our jobs – has the unintended consequence of making us dependent on our jobs for everything, not just our livelihoods and our professional satisfaction but even for self-dignity and our sense of identity.

So my advice would be to conduct yourself assuming that everything you say or do will be reported in the newspaper or the evening news. One of the things that I like most about the idyllic area that we live in is that everyone could know everything about you. This creates a very different culture than more metropolitan areas where you may not need to do business in the future with a person or company that you may have taken advantage of.

While there are thousands of books written on the subject of ethics, it all comes down to one thing for me – What would Mom say?