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The Lance Armstrong saga reminds us that personal and professional success is guided by ethics

25 January 2013

"If you don't have ethics, you don't have capitalism," wrote Linnea McCord, associate professor of business law at Pepperdine University's Graziadio School of Business and Management. "What Americans seem to have forgotten is that our way of life -- our political system, our economy, and indeed our freedom -- depend entirely on trust, and trust depends on ethical conduct."

As the world consumes the fall-out from Lance Armstrong’s confession that he used performance-enhancing drugs to conquer the cycling world, we are reminded that honesty, fairness, and integrity seems like wallpaper in the workplace where headlines shout about companies and individuals lying, stealing, and cheating to get ahead.

The parade of the morally tainted such as Armstrong has caused professional ethicists such as Professor McCord to ask not who has been cheating, but rather who has not.

The truth is millions of rands are lost every day because of unethical behaviour, a reminder that ethics is no longer theory, but a direct route to success.

Workers, professional and ordinary labourers say it is often harder and harder to be an honest person. They say sometimes feels like a jerk in a world where other people are cheating their way to the top.

Every day employees report that they sometimes feel pressured to engage in misconduct to achieve business objectives. That is why companies encourage workers to blow the whistle on unethical conduct through fraud lines and whistleblower projects. After all, one employee's decision when faced with an ethical dilemma can make or break an organisation.

The challenge is laws and ethics have related, yet different meanings. Both refer to society's sense of what comprises acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. Laws are the rules in society that protect us from the most serious affronts to morality, such as murder. Ethics also covers less offensive behaviours such as lying for which laws are not written. This means a CEO or business leader can act within the law yet be considered unethical.

Of course, workers and ordinary people often have an ambiguous relationship with the truth. William Shakespeare picked up plots for his plays wherever he could, while in his essay on liars, the French philosopher Montaigne warned his readers that adding lie upon lie was like trying to forever patch a leaky roof.

Ethics can be learned and can be used to keep an employee from causing the next big corporate scandal. After all, business can't survive if it can't be trusted to do the right thing. So ethics, like any other academic discipline, is fundamental to any business’ survival.

Companies should offer annual workshops and training in ethics for employees to immerse themselves in ethics training. The goal should be to share experiences and develop new techniques to enable employees to raise their own ethical awareness and ability to make rational, ethical choices in the business world.

Workers, employees and employers should think much harder about business ethics on a daily basis. There should never be any confusion over what every employee and employer’s responsibilities are, and over where the limits of those responsibilities lie. Managers of companies must confront these questions in running their businesses, just as individuals must in leading their everyday lives.


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