Sure, your mission statement is a thing to behold, with the potential to light up the world. But it isn’t the Mona Lisa. You can print it out in fancy fonts, frame it up, and hang it. It’s still not a work of art unless it inspires you to embrace the art of working and living ethically. Your code of ethics—the moral standards you use to relate to the world—bridges the distance between listing your ideals and living them. Ethical living, consistently choosing to do what’s right, is its own reward. Admittedly, it’s easy to resist everything but temptation—to paraphrase Oscar Wilde. Lots of things may look fun (and they are) and some things may also look harmless (but they aren’t). Immoral behavior has lethal side effects for your business, employees, and yourself. Before you sidestep your conscience, consider the consequences.
You’re being watched
Put aside for a moment the nanotechnology that makes cameras the size of pushpins. Look around. The people who report to you are watching your every move. Our natural competitive impulse finds us keeping an eye on one another.
One slip and we’re instant grist for the gossip mill. But it’s worse for the boss. Employees model their leaders like children model their parents. Swipe a few pads of Post-it notes and people will think that it’s open season on the supply cabinet. That’s why I gave my assistant, Dorie, an ongoing kitty of $100 to pay for personal expenses like snacks and postage. I obeyed every rule and received the same discount on tires and car repairs as everyone else.
You’ll know it
Some people fold themselves into logic pretzels to justify dubious decisions. But deep down, where the best part of them lives, they know better.
Even if nobody so much as raised an eyebrow, it didn’t feel right to force the company to take the hit for my higher car payment. So I asked human resources to take an extra $300 a month out of my paycheck. Each year I also asked HR to compare my compensation against our CPA firm’s national CEO market survey to ensure I was in line.
You’re gambling with your good name
When news broke that Arthur Andersen had shredded Enron documents and committed other crimes and misdemeanors, the Big Six accounting firm’s reputation was tarnished for good. It wasn’t long ago that the overnight collapse of a global Goliath was unimaginable. Now there are days when the business section of the newspaper reads like a rap sheet.
We live in a transparent age. Corporations have glass walls. Disgruntled employees can e-mail incriminating documents faster than you can say, “Not guilty, Your Honor.” If you bend the rules even once, you’re asking for trouble. The same goes for your personal life. After the sale of Tires Plus to Bridgestone/Firestone was made public, I received an unsolicited call from a well-known accounting firm that I had never engaged. They told me I could save several million dollars in taxes by setting up an offshore account.
I do feel it’s important to pay my share to recognize the opportunities that this country gave me to earn a good living. When I hear “offshore,” I walk the other way. I’ve worked too hard for too long to run the risk of staining my reputation. It’s not a question of faint-heartedness; it’s a matter of right-heartedness. The dollar amount was irrelevant. You can’t put a price tag on a good night’s sleep, or a good family name.