A delightful little book by John Maxwell is provocatively titled, There’s No Such Thing as Business Ethics. Now some might simply think, “no kidding.” But for the curious, or those inclined to disagree, Maxwell’s book makes an interesting argument. His point is not that all of business is unethical. Rather, he disagrees with the point of view that the operative ethical principles of business are somehow specialized and different from (occasionally, contrary to) the ethical principles that govern our everyday lives.
According to Maxwell, the test of what is ethically acceptable or unacceptable in the business context is exactly the same as that which applies in our everyday, non-work circumstances. For him, it is all summed up in one principle, The Golden Rule. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” If you follow that, your behavior will be ethical; if you depart from it, it won’t be. At work or at home, in the office or in the neighborhood.
I believe that Maxwell is correct that ethics in the context of business is simply an extension of ethics in general. There aren’t special exceptions for business. It’s as wrong to lie to your competitor as it is to lie to your neighbor. All of us, of course, have encountered different attitudes. We have heard “But this is business” said as if it meant “Anything goes”. Certainly, some people feel that way. People who would never cheat in a neighborhood card game can be perfectly content to deceive their customers or rip off their suppliers. But this doesn’t show that such people are operating according to a special “business ethic”; rather, it simply reveals that, in the context of business, they have made the decision to be unethical.
If it is true that ethics in business and ethics in everyday life are the same, it is legitimate to ask, why are codes of professional ethics sometimes so complicated?
The National Association of REALTORS® is rightfully proud of its Code of Ethics, a document first formulated in 1913, and amended at more that 30 different national conventions since then. With 17 articles, supplemented by over 70 Standards of Practice and more than 140 official Case Interpretations, it presents a complex set of documents.
Nor is the NAR® Code of Ethics a unique phenomenon. There are hundreds of professional and trade group codes of ethics. Physicians, lawyers, funeral directors, and wedding planners — to name just a few — all have professional codes of ethics. So also do many individual companies and corporations. They vary, of course, in range and complexity. How is it that professional codes can become so complicated? People need to understand that there are various purposes served by professional codes, although not every code serves them all.
(1)They bring to our attention and provide direction with respect to issues that might not otherwise even have been identified as matters for an ethical concern. While ethical principles may remain the same, frequently the circumstances encountered in business are quite different than anything we experience in the non-business world. A professional code can help us to decipher those situations.
(2) In many situations they provide us with the wisdom and insight of those who have preceded us. Quite simply, they save us the trouble of reinventing the wheel.
(3) Professional ethics codes sometimes also cover matters that are not so much ethical as they are issues of professional etiquette or proper procedure. They help to keep professionals “on the same page” when they are interacting with each other.
(4) Professional ethical codes are also sometimes used for the purposes of “drawing lines” in order to remove any unclarity about what may be considered acceptable or unacceptable. They help to remove the “shades of grey” that can be found in so many situations.
Professional codes, such as that of the Realtors’, are based on everyday ethical principles. Their value resides in the fact that they show us how those principles apply to specific business contexts that well may not be “everyday”.