What Happened to Business Ethics

| Business Ethics

By Mike Alerding     Every time I get a contract to sign, I find it almost impossible to spend the time reading the fine print and trying to understand all of the future implications of the agreement.  As my son, the attorney always reminds me, “Words mean things”.

I made an airline reservation the other day and for the first time read all of the fine print associated with the “contract” to provide me with transportation.  The rules were almost limitless and included some scary matters associated with timing (being to the gate on time), cancellation (flight may be cancelled without notice) and my “rights” as a passenger (not many).  Having traveled quite a bit for over 40 years, I thought I understood that if I pay for a seat on a plane, the airline had the obligation to provide me with service and transportation.  Well, maybe……….

Reading emails is almost as difficult now as signing a contract.  Almost all business emails have the disclaimer, running anywhere from 100 words to 300 words, discussing the limitations for use of information included in the email.  Although I try not to print too many emails, I probably waste one out of every three pages when I do printing the gibberish relating to limitations.  Remember, words mean things.  Does that mean that every time you send an email to someone you are effectively saying that you really don’t mean it and they can’t rely on what you have said?  Words mean things?

We now, and have been for decades, live in a society of mistrust and a CYA mentality.  Whatever happened to business ethics? What happened to the day when a deal was a deal not because my words were better than yours or because some litigation in the Fifth Circuit Court favored my position vs yours, but because it is the right thing to do?  This “gotcha” mentality has become a game for businesses.  The only winners are usually the lawyers and we just keep doing the same thing over and over.  As Michael Crichton said so very well, we have created a “State of Fear”.

Have we forgotten basic business ethics and standards of conduct?  Have we lost sight of the basic concept of doing the right thing because it is the right thing to do?  Do we lack the self confidence needed to judge our own actions and, instead, leave the determination of what is the right thing to do to some judge, a jury or an arbitrator?  When did we lose our innocence about what is right or wrong?

After a heated and long discussion about corporate responsibility in an audit committee meeting a few years ago, one of the elderly and very wise members of the committee sat silently during the discussion.  After all of the give and take on whether it made good “business sense” (aka “profit” sense) to implement a corporate policy that would protect customers in the event of a mistake made by the corporation, there was a lull in the conversation and the old gentleman finally spoke up.  In a very quiet, but direct voice, he simply said, “We need to do this simply and only because it is the right thing to do”.  It was profound and the committee sat silently.  The motion passed unanimously.

Simple and uncomplicated business ethics still has a place in our society and in business in particular, but it continues its downward spiral into the lower rungs of our conscience. Doing the right thing because it is the “right thing to do” needs to make a comeback – and it needs to happen soon.

Mike Alerding is a co-founder and Senior Director of Alerding CPA Group, an Indianapolis-based public accounting firm. Visit our website: www.alerdingcpagroup.com.

This post was written by:

Michael Alerding, CPA
Senior Director

Mike has over 40 years of experience in public accounting. He is a prior columnist for The Indianapolis Business Journal and serves on multiple boards throughout Indianapolis. He currently focuses his time on litigation support, business valuations, succession planning consulting and audit and accounting engagements.
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