Business Ethics

The elephant in any room

Business Ethics

“Yes, of course!” This is the answer for most professionals when asked, “Are you ethical?” Yet, even the best professional speakers struggle with ethical dilemmas and, sometimes, land on the wrong side of ethical decisions and behavior with their ethical practices.

Your professional reputation is about who you are, what you do, and how you do it. It takes seconds to create a first impression, months to sculpt a reputation, and an instant to destroy it. What do colleagues, clients, and vendors say about you and your business activities to your face and behind your back?

Each industry offers its own code of ethics, code of conduct, set of ethical principles, cultural codes, Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), Standard Operating Guidelines (SOGs), state statutes, federal laws, and international laws. Each organization has its employee handbook, cultural codes, and practices that support their official corporate social responsibility initiatives.

We look at ethical foundations, some commonly respected ethical guidelines across industries and organizational cultures, and explore why we choose unethical behavior.


“You wear your choice on your face. Take a look.” —Beba G. Gurri

My father loved America, the Pope, and Sears. As naturalized citizens, my parents, Joseph N. Gurri, MD and Beba G. Gurri instilled in the four Gurri children the importance of giving back in gratitude for the freedom afforded us by the USA, our adopted country.

His ethical foundations were simple, not easy. His motto, “Just do the right thing.” provided guidance. He believed that acting honorably was part of our obligation to create a better world.

Everyone receives unique ethical foundations from family, faith and educational communities, and global experiences. These values inform our choices in good times and bad, in the short-term and the long-term.


Ethics are society’s effort to understand the effect of morality and moral standards on our conduct. Ethics provide a way to know what the “right thing” to do is when it counts the most.

Ethics exist because good behavior does not always pay. Ironically, in the real world, virtue is not always the easiest course toward tangible rewards. As seen so often in the news, illegal and unethical behavior often pays well.

Vows, pledges, oaths, promises, policies, agreements, and procedures are formal ethical guidelines. Informal guidelines or social mores usually go unwritten and are often unspoken. When we cross a cultural more, we know it from the disapproval expressed by others. Talk during a movie; other viewers nearby quickly advise you verbally and nonverbally that you have violated a commonsense ethical code of conduct.

Effective corporate governance invites, supports, and stimulate colleagues to work within agreed-upon guidelines for conduct that serve the greater good. While virtue is no guarantee of success, it is a necessary foundation for it.

A strong ethical foundation is especially important for leaders who impact communities globally and locally. What we say and how we say it matters. Ethical leaders motivate, innovate, and offer perspective to individuals and organizations, creating ethical strategies for achieving excellence. Ethical leadership strengthens our own bottom line, that of our clients, and that of the economy.

Ethical Professionals rely on bylaws and professional codes of ethics to establish and maintain a reputation for professionalism and integrity. Knowledge of and adherence to professional codes are conditions of National Speakers Association membership. These codes of ethics set standards to further the reputation of each speaker, the association, and the speaking industry.

Committing to ethical behavior as members of a premier organization for professional speakers makes us stronger personally and professionally, and fosters pleasant, meaningful, successful lives and relationships.


“Virtue is its own reward.” Case studies and common sense have shown that organizations committed to the highest standards of conduct and ethics produce superior results.

One of my favorite entrepreneurs is speaker Ruby Newell-Legner, CSP, an expert in 7 Star Service. Ruby

knows that reaching for and achieving high standards creates superior service and stellar reputations.

“Our ethical behavior reflects who we are as a person–both personally and professionally. Our actions as professional speakers form our reputation and impact our future. How we conduct business earns the respect of our colleagues and clients … or creates a negative reputation. When conducting business and making decisions as speakers, we must always do the right thing in the right way to maintain positive character, high integrity and an ethical reputation.”


Six simple and practical guidelines are posed by George May to discern the ethical choice. Before you act, ask yourself about:

1. Values. Does your action follow the spirit of the law or principle?
2. Conscience. Can you justify your action to yourself or someone you respect?
3. Rules. How does your planned action fit with policies and procedures?
4. Laws. Is the action legal?
5. Heroes. How would your hero act? Would he or she blame others?
6. Promises. Will your action live up to your promises? Will it build trust?


The history of ethics and the law is all about boundaries; fairness; protecting individuals and groups from harm; and preventing conflicts of interest, fraud, and theft. Consider the overlap between ethics and the legal code. Ethics are based on a higher level of expectation for conduct; the law is the lowest level of conduct expected by society or a group.What is acceptable to do or not to do, say, or not say?

Professionals are bound by local, national, and international laws; active contracts; and laws that apply to their chosen professions. The following are some key laws and legal principles that help guide speakers to choose ethical actions, interactions, and communications on their path toward excellence:

  • Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA)
  • Breach of Contract or Duty
  • Client Information and Confidentiality
  • Code of Ethics and Statutes for Public Officers and Employees
  • Copyright Infringement
  • Defamation
  • Discrimination Complaint Procedures and Laws
  • Diversity Management
  • Employment Practices
  • Environmental Issues
  • Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC)
  • Ethical Business & Management Practices
  • Fraud Laws
  • Harassment Laws
  • Harm to a Person’s Dignity
  • Hostile Workplace Laws
  • International Business Laws
  • Negligence and Misconduct
  • Quid Pro Quo Laws
  • Political Involvement
  • Professional Licensure
  • Sexual Conduct and Harassment
  • Social Media and Media Practices
  • Vendor Relationships
  • Violence and Other Intentional Wrongs Against Other People

Why Do We Misbehave?

Few people set out to intentionally disgrace themselves, incur fines or jail sentences, get fired, or be censured by their colleagues and industry.

So, why do we misbehave?

A complicated array of internal and external factors contributes to our decisions to act ethically or not. As a consulting psychologist for over thirty years, I’ve found that people misbehave for altruistic reasons, and in response to “delicious temptations.”

Consider four altruistic reasons and four seductive motivators for unethical behavior. Then, consider internal and external factors that make us vulnerable to unethical choices and behavior.


Good people sometimes lose jobs, go to jail, pay fines, face financial ruin, and destroy their reputations by “helping” someone in need. One way to combat this generous impulse is to ask yourself, “Will this course of action wrong anyone? Is it something I can shout proudly about to the world? Is this going to make the recipient of my goodwill a better, stronger person, or does it just bail them out of their own poor planning and weak choices?”

If these questions fail to inform your decision to “help” someone in questionable ways; ask yourself, “Would I even consider asking anyone to do this for me?” Overly kind, generous people who can’t resist helping others are not likely to even consider asking others for the same favors.

Four altruistic, unethical favors are common to good people:

1. Cutting corners
2. Turning a blind eye
3. Hiding the truth for or from others
4. Giving overly generous or false feedback

Delicious Temptations: The Big Four

Enticed by lucrative fees and fame, and shaken by pressure to succeed, speakers are sometimes motivated to overlook ethical values. “Delicious temptations” contribute to slippery thinking and unethical behavior. Ethicist George S. May said it best: We act unethically due to:

1. Greed
2. Speed
3. Laziness
4. Haziness

I add a fifth:

5. Craziness

Whether motivated by altruism or temptation, truth and trust are destroyed when we behave unethically.

What Makes Us Vulnerable to Unethical Behavior?

“Because we have an image (simulacrum) of ourselves as fair, objective, practical, and humane, we actually make it more difficult for ourselves to be what we think we are.” —Thomas Merton

Ethical choices and behavior are complicated. Consider some factors that influence our choices.

Internal Factors

  • Feelings. Anger, hunger, desperation, anxiety, frustration, fatigue
  • Entitlement. “Why not me? I deserve this more than the other person?” “I’m special. Why should the rules apply to me?” “Why shouldn’t we hold this person accountable? Are they special?”
  • Culture. Internalized family values, neighborhood, workplace cultures, faith communities
  • Mind Games. We can convince ourselves of many things that aren’t true Bitterness “They owe me.” “Why am I getting blamed for this? It’s not fair!” “It’s time for payback!”

External Factors

  • Pressure. Social, emotional, financial, being helpful, being needed
  • Opportunity. Isolation, privacy, independence, poor security controls
  • Culture. Culture of acceptance in family, neighborhood, workplace, associations
  • Finances. Desperation, shame, financial distress can misdirect our values and commitments



So often, our ethics go unspoken and unwritten. It’s a good day to think and write!

On the following pages, list your top three guiding business values or ethical principles. Rate how you are doing at achieving each of them with 5 being “the best I can do,” and 1 being, “it’s a work in progress.”

  • What are your obligations with regard to each value?
  • What is the consequence of poorly resolved ethical conflict for each value?

      Value                     Rank                            Obligation                                          Consequence


Ask Yourself: “How did I do today with my ethical practices?

To be ethical, we must continually be self-aware. This exercise is a good place to start. Identifying
our values or what we think they are is a crucial first step in self-awareness. We must ask ourselves questions each day like these posed by Thomas Shanks, SJ, PhD. (Shanks, Thomas, PhD. Everyday Ethics. Markala Center for Applied Ethics. Published in Issues in Ethics.

1. Did I practice my values?
2. Did I do more good than harm?
3. Did I treat others with dignity and respect?
4. Was I fair and just?
5. Was my community better because I was in it? Was I better because I was in my community?


Ethical practices come from sound decision-making processes. The most heart-wrenching and wallet-draining business mis-steps can be avoided, identified, and solved. I found this Ethical Decision-Making Worksheet and adapted with Dr. Mitch Handelsman’s permission, the Ethical Professor and a fine trumpet player. Handelsman, M. M. (1998). Ethics and Ethical Reasoning. In S. Cullari (Ed.), Foundations of Clinical Psychology (pp. 80-111). Boston: Allyn & Bacon.

Tentatively state the problem or policy to be developed.

1. What are the relevant facts of the case?
a. What empirical questions are involved?
b. What facts might not be relevant?

2. To whom are we obligated?
a. The general public, institutions, professions?
b. Who is our client?

3. What sources of guidance are available?
a. Professional codes of ethics
b. Laws and regulations

4. Which ethical principles are relevant?
a. How?
b. What are the rights of the parties involved?

5. Restate the problem in terms of its ethical issues.

6. What are the alternative courses of action or alternative policies?

7. What are the consequences of each of these?
a. Long and short-term consequences.
b. Benefits and risks
c. What are the probabilities of these consequences?

8. Is each of these possible actions morally consistent?
a. Would we choose this option if positions were reversed?
b. What would the decision be if there were no laws?
c. What if all actions lead to equally good outcomes?

9. What facts would have to change for our decision to change?

10. How might our values be influencing our deliberations?
a. Can the consequences be valued differently?
b. Which facts of the case may be disguised values?
c. What are my personal motivations?
d. How might I benefit personally or professionally from the alternative courses of action?
e. Which courses of action will actualize my highest ethical values?

Finally, the most important part of any ethical practice is to keep asking ourselves and honorable colleagues these questions. Ethics, at there best, are responsive to changes times and circumstances.