Profit at any cost?

‘Profit at any cost? Why business ethics makes sense’ by Jerry Fleming, published by Baker Books.

Ben Crowley2 Blogs Leave a Comment

I came across this book in a bookshop in the USA and was attracted by its style and its message, making a nice link with the Porter article above. I was not always impressed by the evangelical and almost religious fervour but I was impressed by some of the research, arguments and conclusions.

The basic argument is that you do not have to compromise on ethics to succeed; those who have compromised may achieve short term results but get found out in the end. He quotes impressive research that shows how those companies with good ethical records perform better than average in the stock market. This made me wonder about those who didn’t get found out and who would, by definition, be included in his sample but I thought I should not be too cynical when reviewing a book about ethics.

The author leans a lot on the work of Doctor Laura Nash of Harvard Business School who works on the principle that the best guide for ethical behaviour is to deal with others as you would wish to be dealt with yourself. She divides unethical behaviour into four types as follows:

• Deceiving
• Stealing
• Mistreating
• Coveting

The book then describes thirty business situations which anyone might face and says that any of the actions described would amount to unethical behaviour and are therefore likely to be detrimental to the organisation in the long term. I have to confess that I failed the test with some of them – like pricing based on known customer desperation, finding out a competitor’s likely tender bid, running down a competitor – but then tried to excuse myself by saying ‘it depends’. (This reminded me of when I once ran a course on competitor intelligence for a major client and we found flipcharts produced by a competitor who had previously occupied the course room; despite agreeing that it was unethical, everyone wanted to have a look!)

One interesting observation in this book is that most managers become more ethical with age – maybe I’m the exception! – and that a way to encourage ethical behaviour is to ask those involved to say what epitaph about business behaviour would they like on their gravestone.

Maybe the book is idealistic and sets standards that are difficult to match; but it certainly gets you thinking and makes you question whether you are as ethical as you thought you were. Which must be good for all of us.

Click here to buy the book.

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