Resistance to Ethics – The Myths We Believe

We’ve looked at resistance to ethics already. What we will now explore is established myths of why people choose not to behave in an ethical way. Really, resistance to ethics is more about not being in touch with one’s own feelings, than any logical reason for not being ethical.

There are a number of social beliefs that advocate strict divisions between ethics and business.

These beliefs can be expressed as follows:

  • Dog eat dog
  • Survival of the fittest
  • Nice guys come second
  • It is not serious
  • If you can’t beat them, join them
  • All that matters is the bottom line

Each of these beliefs is a manifestation of an organisation’s level of consciousness. Typically, all six of these beliefs are a manifestation of the survival level of organisational consciousness.

Myth One: ‘Dog-Eat-Dog’

This myth portrays business as a hostile and lonely environment. The only ‘ethic’ that exists is that you fight for your own interests either as a pack (the organisation), or as an individual within the pack.

Those who adhere to this belief see the working environment as a ‘war of all against all’. [More]

Taken to its pure extreme, the result of this myth is dysfunctional, since business is in most cases social by its very nature.

There is, in business, an inherent need to respect others within your network – not necessarily for ethical reasons, but simply because it would be difficult to find stakeholders to engage in business with an organisation that did not, at some level respect them.

Even if this type of organisation had an expedient respect for stakeholders, it would still have a dominant win-lose strategy in its dealings with those stakeholders. Thus, by its nature, this type of relationship with the business stakeholders would not be sustainable.

Myth Two: Survival Of The Fittest

This worldview dictates that the organisation focus its energy on beating the competitors – no matter the cost. Further, there is no place for ethics, as these would undermine the competitiveness of the organisation.

This myth is marginally better than the ‘dog-eat-dog’ myth, since there may be some sense of loyalty/ethics within the organisation. For example, a family business may have a high sense of loyalty to each member of the family. However, there would be no scruples within the family with regard to their organisation’s competition and how they would treat others outside of the family.

If we are to assume that business functions as an organic system, then it would follow that competition is necessary for the business to stay healthy. Competition prevents organisations from applying inefficient business practices in the long run. It almost ensures that the business has to self regulate if it is to stay competitive. A possible reason as to why companies do not regulate themselves into a proactive ethical position is that there are other dysfunctions within the broader system that do not allow for effective self regulation.

Another environment that requires competition to survive is sport. If spectators feel in any way that their favourite game is being rigged, they become very vocal about this. They may even show their displeasure by not going to the game. Much of the debate that surrounds the quota system in our national sports is about creating systems that favour political issues, to the detriment of the game.

Myth Three: Nice Guys Come Second

The assumption that this myth makes, is that ethics and business success are mutually exclusive. As we’ve seen, it’s important to be principled for the success of an organisation.

The added benefit of being ethical is that the people in the organisation have greater loyalty/dedication towards the organisation and, in the process, their work is creatively executed.

“Dedication means that you will be willing to work hard and to make personal sacrifices for the sake of the company. Creativity means that you will go beyond what is merely expected and will use your imagination for the benefit of the company.”
– D Rossouw and L Van Vuuren, Business Ethics, Oxford University Press, 2004

Sustainability in an organisation can only occur in an environment of mutual respect and where the individual is treated with dignity. Dedication in required from both parties (employee and employer), and each needs to recognise the contribution that the other is making towards their well being and the fulfilment of their respective goals.

“Far from being a liability, ethics turns out to be a prerequisite for sustaining the performance of a company.”
– D Rossouw and L Van Vuuren, Business Ethics, Oxford University Press, 2004

Myth Four: It Is Not Serious

This myth states that, even though unethical conduct is wrong, it is not really harmful to society. This view typically involves bribery and fraud, which is deemed almost as a perk of the job.

As stated previously, if an organisation is a system, then anything that occurs within the system that unfairly enriches an individual within the system, that the ramifications of that will be felt throughout the system.

The interesting thing about this myth is, what constitutes a bribe? Organisations are very skilled at currying favour with individuals in other organisations through hospitality events such as golf. A round of golf at Sun City can cost close to a R1000.

Does this constitute a bribe?

What if the guest is flown there in a private jet? What if he stays at the Palace?

Much of these kinds of hosting events are poorly disguised ‘bribes’. But this has become accepted practice. The cost of these hospitality events is usually allocated to ‘marketing’.

Myth Five: If You Can’t Beat Them, Join Them

Why rock the boat? This question seems to be an underlying justification for a lot of unethical behaviour. South Africa has had many examples of this myth in the last fifty years.

It is, perhaps, the most dangerous of all the myths.

People are very poorly equipped to stand up to unethical behaviour that is practised by a group. There are all kinds of ramifications. If the individual does not participate in the unethical behaviour, that system will reject the individual. If one takes the above example of playing golf, is this not ritualised unethical behaviour?

What possible reason can there be for an executive who gets paid R2 million per year to justify playing golf during a work day? Does it take four hours on the golf course to create a bond with a client? (One wonders what kind of bond is being created.) Not playing golf in some companies and environments is seen as non-compliant behaviour. How can an individual ever counter this type of corporate abuse – abuse that costs the organisation (and, therefore, the shareholder) millions of Rands in lost revenues and opportunities?

Myth Six: All That Matters Is The Bottom Line

We’ve looked at this myth before.

Deon Rossouw makes the point that:

“The claim that the bottom line is all that matters in business amounts to mistaking a prerequisite for existence for the goal of existence.

By looking at the myths that bar ethics from business, the importance of ethics within business becomes apparent.”

 D Rossouw and L Van Vuuren, Business Ethics, Oxford University Press, 2004

Ethics – A Summary

Here’s the thing …

The world today is a very unethical place. The great danger that faces all of us in business is that the goals of the business are only sustainable if there is a segment of the market that is exploited. Business practice and business goals today depend on this exploitation to stay in operation. Whether the exploitation happens in this economy or some other one, the exploitation occurs.

I have limited this discussion to ethics in business only. This issue is easier to address this way, and much work has already gone into creating ethical working environments. The fact that these organisations support an unethical world economy is part of a separate debate that falls outside the discussion in this assignment.

The need for ethics and ethical behaviour has been shown to benefit business and the individuals in business.

The need to nurture one’s purpose is, I believe, part of the ethics of business. Individuals need to find and participate in their vocation. It is their voice in the ‘universe’.

Leaders who have the will to serve are the facilitators of not only better organisations, but also the custodians of a more humane society.

The final point that I want to make is that we as individuals have an obligation to ourselves and the world to fulfil our vocation, to work towards a clear purpose in our organisation, to facilitate others reaching their full potential while we reach ours, and – above all else – to do all of this with integrity and a sense of justice for all.

As we move into this age of rapid change, we need to turn to our spiritual intelligence and to cultivate it, for the complexity that will become part of our lives is uncharted territory which requires careful deliberation but, at the same time, rapid decision making. This we will only be able to do if we are centered and have learned to trust our intuition which in turn has been guided by our experience and our wisdom.


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