Fair Business Dealing in an Unfair World

A fundamental principle of ethics is fairness. Ethical people play fairly. They respect the rules, judge circumstances by ethical criteria, and follow through appropriately. In a competitive business climate, the ethical lines are blurred by the urgency to make the sale, outmaneuver the competition, and leverage anything and everything to close the deal. The big question is how you can stand by the principle of fair business dealing when it seems so advantageous not to.

First, understand what fairness is and what it is not. Fairness is not just about equality of outcome. It’s about how you play the game. What makes our modern business culture so successful is that there are rules that govern how we do business so that everyone who plays has a shot at winning. The government does this through regulation and legislation such as antitrust and anti-corruption laws. Businesses do this by abiding by industry standards, clarifying ethical codes and procedures, and raising the bar for ethical business conduct. Although there is no guarantee of success, there is a reasonable assurance that everyone is playing by the same rules. This is fine and good, but how should we operate in a world where some play by the rules and others do not?

You must first accept the basic moral principle that fair and honest business practices are the best options simply because they are the right things to do. If you don’t, then everything can be either thrown out or accepted based on whatever subjective criteria you want. You have to decide to take the moral high ground even if you’re the only honest person in sight. Of course, this is more easily said than done. There will be times in your life when you may feel pretty lonely after the warm feelings are gone and you’re left with only your principles to keep you company.

But it doesn’t have to feel this way. Being able to deal fairly in an unfair world can be done successfully if you truly understand the scope and the power you have when you adopt honesty and integrity as your model for work and business.

Understand that playing fairly does not automatically put you in a weaker position. It is a myth that people who do things by the book are handicapped because they can’t take a back door around obstacles. On the contrary, an honestly run business is something that you can leverage to your advantage. Honesty can actually add value to your work like money in the bank. In today’s business culture a good reputation puts you head and shoulders above the rest. Trust is something that most customers will pay dearly for. How much would you pay for an honest car mechanic, contractor, or financial planner? The knowledge that you deal fairly and honestly with your customers is a commodity that has significant value. Be proud of it. Hang your hat on it and make it your motto and signature. Know that your fair business practices can put you in a position of strength rather that weakness.

What really matters is the big picture and long-term success. Where are you going and are you ultimately successful in what you do? Criminals base their success on their latest heist. That’s the short term benefit. The rest of us base our success on the long term outcome and the journey we took to get there. There is no argument that dishonesty can make you a quick buck. Sure, paying employees or subcontractors cash (off the books) will save you money. Not disclosing product defects or potential problems will move inventory quicker. And cutting corners may improve the bottom line. But at what cost and risk? If you take your success in business seriously, you will find that dishonesty is not worth it. Doing these things is foolish and short sighted because they simply don’t work in the long-run.

Be assured that it is still possible to swim with the sharks and not get eaten. You can still play fairly and win as long as you are willing to play smarter. There’s plenty of room for shrewd dealing, strategy, playing your cards right, and taking advantage of opportunities. If you are playing with others who skirt around the rules then you just have to play harder and smarter to win. But it’s not just the reward, but what you will have learned along the way that will enable you to win again. It is possible to have your cake and eat it too. You can work fairly in an unfair world. An honest business model can be a successful business model. An honest work ethic can achieve far greater things than a dishonest one.