For business, complacency has always been synonymous with failure. Staying ahead of the curve doesn’t equal success—it equals viability. Being stagnant is not an option. That’s why enterprises are investing daily in new tools and technology to reach stakeholders and manage brands and operations.
Yet, while we’re responsive to many changes in the way we conduct business, there is one area where too many of us are complacent: maintaining character. We only have to read the headlines to know this is true. Shortsighted business goals too often trump principles and ethical practices. And rising pressures to remain relevant in today’s marketplace have only increased the potential for organizations to choose expediency over virtue.
Complacency about ethics never fails to surprise me—because, quite simply, unethical behavior is completely at odds with building a sustainable business model. It creates enemies. It risks the ire of lawmakers and regulators. It can disenfranchise and, at times, enrage the public. In short, tolerating unethical behavior and neglecting ethical decision-making practices is a direct affront to a fundamental rule, one almost as irrefutable as the law of gravity: No company can exist without the permission of its publics. If you lose that, you lose your privilege to operate.
Now, there are countless excuses for this complacency. One I often hear is that it’s impossible to set global rules for ethical behavior. Instead, we should accept local customs that normally we would deem “unethical,” like bribery or financial fraud. But one need only look at the tenets of organized religions or the codes of conduct developed by governments and communities around the globe to recognize that the basic principles and rules of behavior—be honest, don’t steal, be fair—are, in fact, universal.
While it’s true we cannot create enough rules to cover each and every situation we encounter, we can create a set of principles that reasonable people can apply. Anything less has us playing at the lowest common denominator of behavior and judgment. Instead, we need to actively, willfully and forcefully apply these principles or we will slowly and inevitably erode our own moral base.
That’s why we must introduce a new strategy for our organizations—something I call character management. In the same way we employ brand management principles to sustain and advance our brands, we must use character management to protect and maintain organizational integrity.
Instead of being indifferent to unethical business behavior, we must focus on the sustainability of character. While we are investing in new tools, technology and resources for our operations, we also must invest in corporate ethics and culture programs—the keystones of character management. With universal standards to guide our business decisions, we will protect jobs, save money, drive value, open and preserve markets, and otherwise ensure our permission from the public to operate.
No more excuses. The time for complacency is over. If you are in public relations, this is your job: to promote, protect and preserve your company’s privilege to operate by driving a culture of ethical decision-making. To quote Aristotle, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, therefore, is not an act, but a habit.” Let’s help our organizations form a habit around ethical behavior and ensure both the sustainability of our character and our existence.