‘Do Your Best’ in The Tangle of Global Business

I spoke recently to a corporate audience on the topic of Ethics for Leaders. One of the sub-topics I touched on was the fact that leaders need not only to make good ethical decisions, but also to help others make good ethical decisions. As a practical example, we looked at techniques a leader might use to help someone else understand what is ethically problematic about bribery. Sure, someone in a leadership position might have the authority simply to give orders; but in many cases it will be much more effective to explain the values and principles that underlie a particular prohibition.

One of the attendees at this session pushed back in a useful way. “I get the ethical argument against bribery, and I agree. But I’ve talked to Sales Managers overseas who say it’s just not realistic to avoid everything that could be construed as a bribe. How do I deal with that, beyond simply pointing to the FCPA?”

This is a tough challenge, one that needs to be taken seriously. Whether it’s bribery or nepotistic hiring practices, local practices that violate the rules of business “back home” can seem hard to avoid. Business is a competitive game, and it sometimes really is the case that scrupulously following the written rules puts a company at a significant — maybe even definitive — disadvantage.

It’s far too easy to play Monday Morning Quarterback and to speak in idealistic terms about integrity in business. But ethics isn’t about being a saint; it’s about finding a way to do your best to find suitable limits on profit-seeking behaviours when those behaviours put other people’s legitimate interests and rights at risk. So, if we are to avoid sounding preachy, what can we say about the Sales Manager above?

First, make sure the “when in Rome” argument isn’t just being used as a fig leaf to cover up what is really an appeal to convenience. Sometimes it may be easier to follow local custom, but that’s not quite the same as necessity.

Second, if — if! — it really is necessary, when doing business overseas, to engage in practices that wouldn’t be allowed back home, are you at least doing what you can to a) minimize the frequency of such violations and b) working, in at least some small way, to improve standards in the local business community? Bribery and other forms of corruption are truly corrosive, and economies in which they are common would be much better off without them. Are you part of the problem or part of the solution?

Third, ask whether unscrupulous (or merely ‘grey zone’) behaviour is being used to cover up poor performance. It may be that the Sales Manager who feels the need to offer bribes simply isn’t very good at his job and is looking for ways to succeed without having sufficient talent or making sufficient effort. Sometimes lack of ethics suggests lack of competency.

And finally, ask what your company can do to change incentives such that a Sales Manager isn’t so single-mindedly driven by numbers that he feels compelled to bend or break the rules. No one within an organization should ever think of themselves as having just a single objective. Yes, a Sales Manager is in charge of Sales. But he also has responsibilities that include risk management (including avoiding bringing the company into shame or into court) and managing morale within the sales team. People will behave according to how you reward them, and so reward mechanisms ought to be as balanced as you would like their performance to be.

The challenges posed by doing business in the global marketplace are never easy. Only by avoiding both naïveté and cynicism can you hope to do good while still doing well.

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