Can A Company Have Ethics?

by Roger Pynn

Seth Godin’s somewhat rambling essay on business ethics left me with a lot of questions, but one thing I was sure about:  companies, just like people, can have ethics despite Seth’s position that “only people can have ethics.”
Ethics are principles.  Principles are like our U.S. Constitution … the foundation our society is built and lasts upon, rarely altered.  They transcend the temporary leadership of the organization.
Godin’s point that businesses are people is right on … and his suggestion that we ought to be pushing the people who run our businesses to do the right thing is obvious.  The law sees a corporation as a person … but a company’s principles may or may not match those of the person at the helm at the moment.
If everyone did the right thing the world would be a sweet place known as Utopia.  Unfortunately, we’re not there yet and as public relations counselors we need to remind clients constantly that their role in maintaining their company’s reputation demands a “do the right thing” mentality.
Godin writes about his father who he admires for building a company based on “taking personal responsibility, not on blaming the heartless, profit-focused system.”
Business decision-making should not and cannot be only about profit if a company is to survive in the long haul.  Making money is honorable.  Fiercely protecting your company’s honor may not insure a profit in these fast-moving times, but failing to do so will surely result in its decline.
We tell clients all the time that we’ll be happy to help them as long as their actions are legal, ethical and moral.  We also tell them that we’ll walk away if they aren’t.  That’s business ethics, Seth.

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