A recommendation to watch a TV show called ‘House MD’ ended up in simply reinforcing my belief that most TV is not worthy of our attention.  However, I am being a little harsh because the program did get me thinking about an extremely important topic.

In Sunday’s episode (I am told it is Season 7, Episode 6!) The leading actor plays a doctor showing absolutely no remorse in ignoring all decent moral and ethical codes one would usually expect of a doctor. In fact not only does he lie to his colleagues, he even arranges for his patient’s home to be broken into, falsely labels blood samples and a host of other abuses, all in the name of ‘doing what is best for his patient’ ie saving his life.   

It is human nature to lie and cheat to get what we want, in fact we all do to a greater or lesser extent.  The question is how far is it acceptable to go?  In most cases businesses have detection methods and before long the ‘bad’ are caught and disciplined according to the local legal, ethical and moral codes of the business.  But these codes vary greatly. What is acceptable in one may be far from acceptable in another.  Add to this the cultural and geographic borders from around the globe and you can see the real dilemma facing business leaders today.

If it were only a matter of integrity, then this would pose less of a problem because integrity is mostly about ‘being true to oneself’.  Or as I’ve been recently told by the CEO of a well known international business ‘one way to measure integrity is to imagine that if what you said and did was captured on video, would you feel comfortable with it being shown to a wider audience?‘  

Unfortunately, in business, one can have integrity while at the same time acting immorally.  Imagine, for example that your business is conducted in a society where bribes or ‘incentives’ are totally acceptable, or the use of child labor is an integrated part of the economic structure.  Although I have picked two extreme cases, in these situations people can retain their integrity while working within the ethical boundaries of their culture.  Therefore a thorough understanding of global moral and ethical codes is becoming essential in order to conduct international business in an acceptable way, but this is far from easy, especially in the usually much more subtle cases.

However, religious politicians have a neat copout that most business people are denied.  They can take what might be seen as unfair or even unethical standpoint without the need for any explanation or justification. For example, it is commonly known that Barack Obama is opposed to same sex marriage and he is able to support this position in his role as ‘President of the free world’ by simply stating that it is his religious viewpoint. End of discussion.

As globalization increases, ironically it may well be international businesses that cover the moral high ground.  My experience of ensuring sustainable business tells me that it is to a large extent about building long term trust and friendships; in being fair to one’s suppliers and honest with ones customers and employees.  But perhaps I am too naive?

Have a good week,