People new to business, young entrepreneurs or former employees striking out on their own, usually begin their journeys with a good deal of idealism and a determination to be “better” than the rest; to be better people than the other evil business people, to offer better products or services because they are more interested in “doing it right”, to feel like they are doing something useful and fulfilling with their lives, and a few even set out to “change the world”.
These people are rarely motivated primarily by a desire for lots of money. Unless you have lots of money to begin with, starting a business, maintaining it, and growing it, is a lot of hard work. If you are in it solely for the money, it will not take long before you become fed up.
However, at the end of the day, money is currently an integral part of any business. Even the most idealistic entrepreneurs must face the realities of living in a society that values the hording of credits over the intrinsic value of what they do or produce. This is where happy path of the entrepreneur begins to enter the thicker and deeper woods. This is where they will start to confront the monsters that lurk and stalk, waiting to pounce, or the dryads that sing a pleasant yet empty song that brings eventual ruin. And also they will meet the most frightening beast of all: themselves.
It happens to every business person eventually, just like everyone else. You reach a fork in the road. You look down each path as far as you can. You decide what is important to you. You weigh this against the end goals. Then you take your first step down that new path. Of course you can almost always turn back and take the other path, but it is never easy, and by that time the other path has likely changed or is completely overgrown.
Now, the thing about choosing paths in a forest is that eventually it becomes easy to loose track of where you once were. A few bad choices, a few too many compromises, and suddenly you might find yourself, at best disheartened with the journey, or at worst reverted to an animal state of “kill or be killed” variety, where war and destruction rains out onto the rest of the world.
Many of us learn from our early years about conflict, team playing, domination and submission, and the necessity of either victory or defeat. This is particularly true of all the high school sports people who enter business school. Even “win-win” scenarios are usually self-interested tactics in a guise of “enlightened” self-interest. The reality is, there is usually very little enlightened in self-interest, even when there is more than one of you being self-interested together.
I should have known I would have problems with the business world early on. My first job was working in the Boys and Toys department at Mervyn’s. I got fired. They found out that I was sending mothers looking for neck ties for their little boys to another store in the mall to check out their ties first before buying any with us. The other store had much better ties, and several of the mothers even came back to thank me. It was obvious to me that by being honest, it generated goodwill, and that goodwill translated into good sales for me, and for Mervyn’s. However, the store manager, who somehow got wind of my “betrayal”, saw things differently. He saw lost tie sales, and hence lost money. He did not consider the extra purchases many of these women made just because they found Mervyn’s to be a “good” store. I was hauled into the store manager’s office by a beefy security guard, honestly, named Mr. Bruno, and standing in front of the manager’s desk, he asked for my Mervyn’s employee credit card, which he proceeded to ceremoniously cut up into small pieces with scissors. I was reminded of Papal excommunications and smiled, which apparently infuriated him, and I was escorted from the premises. So much for honesty, eh? You would think I would learn my lesson.
But actually, my first job was before that, though I don’t really consider it a job. I worked for a couple who owned a small, strange little exotic fish store. We loved these fish. And we loved the people who came in, loving these fish. I say it wasn’t really a job, because it was downright fun and enjoyable. And I was proud of our little fishy world. And they handed me a $20 bill every night I was there in Junior High, after school.
Since having my own businesses, I have been confronted with many complex and important decisions. All business people will, at one point or another, need to weigh the intrinsic value of money gathering against the intrinsic value of their own conscience and the best interests of others. This simple measure is the source of and endless madhouse packed full of reasoning, rationalizations, traditions, egos, desires, justifications, and… the extraordinarily rare and immutable gemstone of true service to others.
Normally, money gets in the way of our better angels. When you can sell an expensive product to someone, even though another product exists that is better and cheaper, why not do it? When your the database of all your customer’s credit card information is compromised, why notify them if you don’t have to, and look bad? If you know someone will not fight you, why not get all you can from them for nothing? If you know you are in a position of power, why not make use of it to further your own self-interest, regardless of any rationalizations?
For the sports-minded, the answer is, well, it’s just business. It’s the law of the jungle (or the forest). In other words, don’t think… do. And do what will win. Hence, starving and suffering people, polluted planet, wrecked economies, etc., etc. Or, in the similar terms of war, collateral damage.
The thing is, individual business people cannot accomplish on their own. They need help. How do employees just let it happen, and even help it? Well, many are like-minded in the sports-like terms of business. Just do it. Others may have a deeper awareness, but choose to ignore their awareness, and just do their jobs. These people, by staying purposefully ignorant of bad things, usually by saying that they have no definitive proof, almost never seek that proof. Instead, they remain complicitous, trying to absolve their conscience by hiding behind a fake veil. Whereas the “just do it” people have no need to think of any rationalizations, the veil people will rationalize. Then there are there whistle-blowers (or pejoratively, tattle-tales), the radicals, or the secret-agent working-within people who try to, of not effect change, then to at least mitigate damages. Our state of affairs in this ethical wasteland is not solely the doing of the business people themselves.
But what can be done if we no longer can justify business as usual?
The first this is realizing that some things should not be money-making businesses at all. For example, it even made big news recently that two judges in Pennsylvania have plead guilty to taking bribes from the private business owners of juvenile prisons, in exchange for those judges sending as many kids to their prisons as possible. This they did, with great zeal, even when unwarranted. It could be said that we ought not to be able to profit from jailing people. It could also be said that we ought not to be able to profit from people being sick or injured. In essence, we should not be able to profit from the misfortunes, the oppression, the suffering, or the deception of others. As long as we can, those situations will always exist and could even be optimized.
But what of our business mentioned earlier, that sells their expensive and inferior product to a customer, knowing full well that their customer would be better off not buying their product at all? Is it unethical merely to keep silent, telling your customer nothing? Would I have been right selling a mom an expensive and ugly tie for her boy? The question boils down to, is keeping silent — is keeping someone purposefully ignorant of facts related to their decision-making an act of deception? Technically, you are not lying. You are simply withholding information, in secrecy. However, you do benefit, at least monetarily in the short-term, from the sale. As such, you have an objective if you withhold the information. And that objective is to benefit monetarily. You achieve that objective by willfully insuring that the environment of ignorance in which the customer exists is maintained. And not only that, you extol the virtues of your own product within that environment of ignorance. As such, you have consciously manipulated the customer into your intended objective, despite the truth that shows your objective is in your own best interest, and not the customer’s. Is it not the very definition of deception; manipulating another with things that are not entirely true? The first level of rationalization a business person would reach for such an action is, “we create a quality product, and the customer will be just as good off with ours, considering their needs and intelligence.” This kind of thinking does not make the business person bad. But it is certainly the beginning of a very slippery slope of greater rationalizations and self-deception.
The better choices for this business owner are pretty clear. First, make a better product if they can. Or, inform the customer completely about the alternate products or solutions, and let them decide. I know that I would feel a great deal of respect for any business that was willing to point me to another, just to be honest with me. I would bring them as much business as I could for doing such a think. Or, if the business cannot make a better product, they can still sell their own, yet keep the customers informed, and work out an arrangement with the better product producer for referral fees. In this way, the business owner can retain their integrity by fully informing their customers, yet still manage to benefit monetarily, though perhaps not as much, and at the same time generate a tremendous amount of goodwill between themselves and their customer, and their business partner. In all likelihood, their business partner would gain a good deal of trust as well, and refer their own customers back when appropriate.
Unfortunately, for businesses that benefit while destroying the planet or harming people in any number of ways, there are no such amicable solutions. They must change or pass away as only memory into some of the darker pages of our history.
It does not always seem important, the seemingly minor decisions we make on how to proceed. But each decision always makes similar decisions easier the next time. At that beginning of the path, at the fork in the road, which will we travel down? And how true to our path will we remain?
So much depends upon our individual character. Someone who is comfortable with white lies, easily moves to gray, and often on to black. These are usually the more gregarious people. The ethical basis of a business is as important as any business plan. From the outset, the standard of openness and honesty must be set high, maintained, and perhaps even considered sacred. Such things do not go unnoticed by customers.
Are you someone who enjoys being idolized or looked up to? If so, the decisions you make will likely not be in the best interests of others, nor even good business decisions. You will do what makes you look best, and power maneuvering will be more important than any endeavor. These are usually the more silent types, who allow other to always show the hands they are holding in the deck of cards, laid out for gain.
Are you more the warrior type who plows over everyone and everything to achieve your victory? Are you the seductress who winds their way stealthily into the heart of their objective? Are you the completely normal buddy guy who suddenly feels inexplicably used or threatened, and knifes in the back? Are you the innocent, pious one who is sometimes naughty, but always is perfectly right and justified in any action? These are perhaps the most ruthless of all, like a venus fly trap that strangles.
Nobody sees themselves solely as one. Yet somehow most business owners’ personalities move in these directions. It is the result of surviving in the kill or be killed wilds, the compromises made along the way, and the justifications they have convinced themselves of. Very few business people, particularly the successful ones, manage to keep their “good” personality in tact. It erodes over a long series of small chips into stone, that leaves a monstrous statue in the end. It is from playing the game, as it now exists. And that game needs to change.
Personally, I look for honesty in another, above all else. If they can keep their honesty in tact, I have little doubt that the good in them will persevere. I also look for people who can help keep me honest as well. It is very easy to loose your way in the forest. It is a very good thing traveling with someone who can help keep you on the path. And, the ego in check.
I suspect that for the less ego-full people, having a partner is a very good thing. You can watch out for each other, when one of you is not alert. You can combine your strengths into something more, and help smooth over any weaknesses. You can assure honesty with your customers, through the honesty you have with each other. And perhaps even the trust that must follow.
When you are starting out in business it is so easy to be exploited. And as those scars callous over, become ruthless yourself. I think this is normally the way of things, even for the best-intentioned. How nice it would be to know we can trust. How nice it would to know that someone is watching out for you.
Perhaps what we need in business is not actually a radical change. Perhaps it is as simple as remembering that it feels good to care. And not just about money.