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Posted on Sun, Dec 20, 2009 : 5:50 a.m.

So You Think You’re Ethical? A Checklist for Businesses

By Debra Power

Most people behave ethically in their personal lives. When you find a wallet, you contact the owner. When a friend asks you to keep something confidential, you keep it to yourself.

But ethics are just as important in the office as they are at home. Immoral business practices can sometimes seem acceptable, and might even be profitable in the short run. But in the long run, those practices are damaging, and everyone ends up getting hurt—your company, your staff, and your customers.

What can you do to ensure that you do business ethically? Further, how can you ensure your company as a whole practices ethical behaviors? It’s a complicated issue, but thinking about it in terms of a checklist can help.

  • According to Eastern Michigan University’s Online Ethics Training Module, “We successfully engage in business professionally and ethically when it is natural to us.” In other words, focus on behaving ethically in everything you do so it becomes natural. Your actions should reflect the integrity of yourself and your business.

  • Behave fairly and ethically with your customers, colleagues and constituency. Of course, the first step is to conduct yourself within the law. Recent examples of financial wrongdoing reveal what happens when the letter of the law isn’t followed.

  • Model yourself and your behaviors after those you admire. Some people are inherently ethical—they act fairly and are true professionals. Pinpoint what it is about those people you respect and emulate that.

  • Discuss ethics as a staff so that everyone understands and embodies your policies. Work towards creating an ethical culture within your company by encouraging staff to follow policy and when they are in doubt have a process in place to follow.

  • Top-notch service requires ethicality, so if you say “satisfaction guaranteed” you should mean it. Think about developing a process for responding to customer complaints. At Zingerman’s there are no less than five steps to responding to a complaint.

  • Resist putting yourself in a position that might be a conflict of interest. Don’t put short-term profits ahead of your reputation as an honorable member of the business community.

  • Establish a social media policy at your company. Social media is a great way to interact with your customer, but remember that the tweets sent by your staff reflect on the company as a whole.

  • Trust your instincts. If something doesn’t feel right it probably isn’t. This is often referred to as the “smell test.” As the EMU training puts it, “our internalized sense of right and wrong tells us that something is not quite the way it should be.” If warning bells start going off inside your head take a step back and assess the situation to determine what feels wrong. Look at things objectively, and then act accordingly.

Businesses are stewards for stakeholders’ money, but also for the world around them. Hold yourself up to a strong litmus test so that you do good, not harm. It will pay off in the long run.

We all hope that people view us and our businesses as ethical. Like many aspects of the professional world, however, there is always an opportunity to improve ourselves. Consider running through this checklist, but only as a starting point on the path to moral responsibility.

Debra Power is president of Power Marketing and Research and the co-founder of the Women's Exchange of Washtenaw. She writes regular columns for Business Review with WXW co-founder Carrie Hensel.