The financial shenanigans of Enron Corp. has been a major news story. What disturbs me the most about this travesty is the magnitude and the scope of the dishonesty. It is incredulous to realize the number of people who knew or should have known that their actions were not correct and probably illegal. Yet the majority of these ethical issues were never seriously considered.
While dishonesty in corporations hits the front page, just the other day Stephen Ambrose, the well known author, was caught plagiarizing sections of his book The Wild Blue, Citizen Soldiers and Nixon: Ruin and Recovery 1973-1990.
I think that dishonesty in our society is tolerated and in many ways encouraged. Just look at how many times the legal system gives people a chance to change before they have to go to jail.
Sometimes in my classes at various universities, I ask the students how they would respond if they got back $20 more than was due them from a restaurant cashier. Unfortunately, the majority of students say they would keep the $20. They rationalize that the restaurant makes mil
lions of dollars and will not miss the $20. After I get over the shock of their reaction, I have a very long talk with them about ethics and honesty.
Can I change their view of honesty? Maybe or maybe not, but what I can do is make them aware of the ethical considerations. I think so many people get themselves into problems because they just do not realize that there are ethical dimensions to their decisions.
Here is what I tell my students and entrepreneurs to ask themselves if they are getting into an ethical quagmire:
1. What would your mother say about this action?
2. How would you feel if your action appeared on the front page of the newspaper?
3. Is it illegal?
If you have the uh-oh feeling about your action from these questions, then you are in an ethical dilemma. I believe that just being aware of an ethical issue will help you to better analyze and deal with the situation.
The top 1 percent of all salesmen were interviewed and asked what is the most important attribute for their success? Was it?
a. Their character,
b. Their wit,
c. Their products/services,
d. Their motivation, or
e. Their honesty.
Without question, the most important attribute to this top group of salesmen was honesty. They clearly understood that for customers to have a relationship with them, the customer needed to trust them. This trust is only earned through consistently honest relations. Most people want to have relationships with only honest people. Just ask someone whether he or she would prefer to get a 10 percent discount on a product dealing with a dishonest business or to pay the normal price to an honest company?
I believe that honesty is one of the most important considerations in being an entrepreneur. Employees, customers, and vendors cannot trust you if you are dishonest. We have been jaded by so much dishonesty in our public lives (e.g. President Clinton and Nixon) that sometimes we learn to tolerate dishonesty and sometimes to even expect it.
Honesty is the virtue you should most desire for your company. The Downtown Rotary Club each year seeks out the best ethically sound business in this area. I applaud their effort to raise the awareness of ethics and honesty throughout our community.
When our kids were younger (about 10 years ago), I went to an ATM machine. It either gave me too much money or the previous customer had left some money in the money dispenser drawer. When I saw this, I took it into the bank with the kids in tow and returned it. Our children still talk about this experience with pride; however, what really felt great about this experience was that I knew that I had been true to myself.
Is being honest easy? No! But honesty brings tremendous dividends. I promise you that, if you make a significant effort to be honest, it will bring rewards in that you will feel so much better about yourself.
Honesty is the only policy!
Jerry Osteryoung, director of Outreach of the Jim Moran Institute for Global Entrepreneurship in the College of Business at Florida State University, can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.