Dear Fellow PRSA Boston Members:
It is Ethics Month and, as your Chapter Ethics Officer for 2016, I wanted to introduce myself and offer a bit on the topic. My name is Nancy Sterling and I am a past president of PRSA and have served in other Board positions including as a delegate to the national convention. Through all of that, plus earning my APR, ethics has been an important and recurring theme. I am proud to belong to a national organization which emphasizes values and ethics.
It is interesting that our colleagues on the journalist side of the table have also become more focused on ethics in recent years. Below is text from a Wall Street Journal blog on the topic which could jump-start a dialogue on ethics with your colleagues, friends or even competitors. For a look at practitioners’ points of view, check out the PRSA National website for more thought-provoking articles.
There is also an excellent PRSA National webinar hosted by Boston’s own Kirk Hazlett on the topic of ethics later this month. I invite you to join me in signing up for what will likely be an entertaining and enjoyable learning experience.
Finally, if there are any ethical issues which you find challenging in the coming year, please don’t hesitate to reach out to me via the contact information below.
Happy Ethics Month! Nancy
What Does Aristotle Have to do With Business Ethics?
By Ben DiPietro
Paul J. Voss, an associate professor at Georgia State University and the president of Ethikos, a company that provides ethics and leadership training, talks about what it means to act ethically in business and what history can teach companies about ethical behavior.
What does it mean to act ethically?
Mr. Voss: What it is is to follow procedures, policies…it’s how you act, what you do. If you’re a journalist or a doctor, it’s how you act in that professional capacity. There are business ethics, medical ethics, journalistic ethics–depending on your public profile, you follow that particular professional code. It’s how you do what you do. Ethics answers the “ought” question, as in ‘How ought we act in this particular situation.’
What are the basics of ethical business behavior?
Mr. Voss: Aristotle 2,500 years ago first articulated what we call “virtue ethics,” the four primary ethical characteristics that could be readily adapted to business today. The first one is prudence, or the wisdom and ability to make good decisions. The next one is justice, or treating people fairly and equitably and following the law. The third one is temperance, or modifying one’s desires and not overextending one’s leverage. The last one is fortitude or bravery, having the courage to do what is necessary–we call that work ethic.
What can history teach us about ethical behavior—what can business leaders learn from Plato, Aristotle and other significant thinkers from the past?
Mr. Voss: History can show us the consequences of unethical behavior, the disasters that have resulted from unethical behavior. But it’s not just a mirror reflecting bad behavior, it’s also a guide book to proper conduct and to articulate and define what an ethical life is. It makes business people human and humane, as well as profitable. Ethics are not the adversary of profit; there’s a right way of making money and a wrong way. [The right way] is fairly, honestly. A free market requires mutual consent, contract law and transparency. Without good faith and honesty, you cannot have a free market.
How does one train business people on ethics?
Mr. Voss: First of all you need a vocabulary, you need to understand the core concepts, then how to implement them–the habits of ethical behavior. [For example] a large banking system had a 3.5-hour seminar and we did case studies looking at how many “heartburn issues” they have in a typical day and are there any ethical dilemmas. [The key is] how do we an define an ethical dilemma. What vocabulary can we use? What knowledge can we apply to these day-to-day situations?
We start by defining the culture–how do we do what we do? How do we loan money, make transactions, deliver packages? What are our strengths in our core competencies? Then we examine that behavior–are there different standards than the ones we’re using? Can we avoid ethical dilemmas and meddlesome situations that might compromise brand equity?
Are companies providing enough ethics training? Are they treating this as an important issue?
Mr. Voss: I don’t think they are providing enough, but then again I’m in ethics training. But they are providing more than they used to. I’d like to see more emphasis on culture and that it’s good business to emphasize an ethical culture—it leads to far less cost, far fewer lawsuits, more productivity and more engaged employees.
How has social media and technology changed the discussions about ethics in business?
Mr. Voss: Tremendously. Now, every complaint made against a company can be immediately retweeted to hundreds of thousands of people in a matter of minutes. Companies have to be more vigilant than ever of their brand equity, their integrity, their culture. A company’s reputation no longer solely belongs to the company, it also belongs to cyberspace.
Write to Ben DiPietro at email@example.com, and follow him on Twitter @BenDiPietro1.