Whether through anecdotes or personal experience, we’re all familiar with business leaders who cut corners, inflate prices, make misleading product claims, slander the competition—and worse—yet sleep soundly at night. How can good people persist in bad business practices?
In conjunction with the spirit of the law is your business and personal ethics. Many people see ethics and business as separate entities. This belief is wrong. An individual’s business ethics and personal ethics must be aligned if one is to be a person of integrity. When a person of integrity does business, financial rewards follow.
When we build an ethical reputation, we will increase our profits.There is a positive relationship between business ethics and profitability. Our employees will be more dedicated to doing their jobs efficiently, and our customers will be more satisfied with our products and service. Loyal customers buy more products and give customer referrals.
Human beings are placed on Earth to grow spiritually, and honesty in business provides this challenge. The marketplace is a perfect testing ground for ethics. When this challenge is met, you can take satisfaction in your accomplishments and your legacy. You corrected your unethical behavior and embraced honest, transparent, and trustworthy business practices. Ethics is now taught to the next generation of businesspeople.
The Spirit of the Law
Of course, the letter of the law must always be met. But we should use a higher purpose in business decision-making—the guiding principle of the spirit of the law. A person may act in a way which is perfectly legal but not ethical. The key is to determine if a person’s deeds go beyond the letter of the law and reach the higher ethical standards of the spirit of the law.
After my salespeople learn the foundation of honest selling, I teach the higher levels of ethical selling, to go beyond the letter of the law. One of my favorite teaching examples is a time-honored story about the first offer.
Biblical and Contemporary Examples
It happened that a righteous businessman had some very fine wine for sale and a potential buyer came to him while he was in the middle of his morning prayers. The customer said, “Sell me this wine for such and such price.” The businessman did not answer, so as not to interrupt his prayers. The customer assumed that the businessman was unwilling to settle for the price offered, so the customer increased his original offer and said, “Sell me this wine for such and such price.” Still the businessman did not answer. This cycle was repeated with ever-escalating prices. Upon finishing his prayers, the businessman said, “From the time you made your first offer, I resolved in my mind to sell the wine to you. Therefore, I may take no greater amount than your first offer.”
The sages made this parable an example of proper ethical behavior, stating, “There would have been no question if he had said verbally, ‘I will sell you this for the price you offer,’ but even if he merely resolved silently in his mind to sell his product for the offered price, even if he did not articulate it, he must not go back on that resolution.”
This decision embodies the concept of ‘going beyond the letter of the law,’ to instead conduct your business within the greater spirit of the law, an ideal everyone should strive to emulate. The sages laud the righteous businessman for his exemplary behavior and proclaim the verse ‘speaks truth in his heart.’ The businessman ‘agreed in his heart’ to the original price; his silence was simply misconstrued by the buyer. Of course, making up one’s mind without verbalizing it does not constitute a binding agreement, but resolving to do so demonstrates an unusually high level of ethical behavior.
Two thousand years later in the twentieth century, the owner of a scrap metal business had a policy to always close his business for the Sabbath. The day after the Sabbath, he listened to numerous voice messages from a government agent offering to buy all the scrap metal in his possession for an urgent building project. Each of the buyer’s successive and obviously urgent messages increased the price because the government agent thought the initial offerings must have been too low. When the owner reviewed all the messages, he contacted the agent and explained that he would have accepted the first offer; he had neglected to answer the initial call, as well as all the subsequent calls, only because it was the Sabbath. He then indicated that he was prepared to let the government have all his scrap metal at the price of the first offer. The agent was so impressed by the owner’s ethical behavior that he made the firm extremely wealthy as the government’s main supplier of building materials.
Another example, what would you consider an advertorial? It’s an advertisement camouflaged to appear as a feature article. Is an advertorial legal—yes. But is it ethical?—no! By typesetting and carefully writing an advertisement as an unbiased opinion, the reader is misled, deceived into believing that the content is not commercial.
Print and Website Decision-making
Management should make business decisions based on delivering reader value. Beyond what is legal, does the magazine present promotional material as regular content? Is the ad-to-content ratio correct so the reader is delivered proper value? Does management investigate their advertisers to ensure that they have business integrity, and their product offerings are honest? Even an advertisement that has a negative reference to a competitor can harm your magazine’s or website’s reputation.
In today’s difficult financial times, is it wise to turn away companies willing to place expensive advertisements? Yes—if it is unethical.
When these types of questions factor into your decision-making, you are practicing the spirit of the law. Then, you will enjoy profitable long-term relationships with your readers and advertisers.
Ethical business is smart business. If you’re pondering what to do in difficult sales situation, and you’re unsure about whether it’s your responsibility to provide full disclosure by informing or warning the customer about a product’s limitations, then err on the side of caution, fairness, and goodness—go beyond the letter of the law. It may not be your responsibility legally, but it honors the spirit of the law.
About the Author
Joel Malkoff, a.k.a. the Ethics Giver, demonstrates that ethical business decision-making isn’t just the right thing to do—it’s the profitable thing to do. Over the course of his 45-year career as a business executive and entrepreneur, he has generated more than half a billion dollars in sales. A writer and speaker on ethical business practices and principles, he serves as general manager and vice president of a corporation that manufactures and sells medical and scientific research products worldwide. A native of Brooklyn, New York, he lives in Avon, Connecticut, with his wife, Lynn. Selling Ethically: A Business Parable Connecting Integrity with Profits is his debut book. Learn more at https://theethicsgiver.com/selling-ethically and https://www.amazon.com/Selling-Ethically-Business-Connecting-Integrity-ebook/dp/B08KSB9HY3.
Related content from StrategyDriven