Ethics Are Important Because People Are Dumb

Leaders are human. (Obvious, I know. Stick with me. We’ll get through this!) As such, they make mistakes. (Wait, where are you going? OK, let’s move this along…)

Let’s assume that leaders can make small-m-mistakes or big-M-Mistakes. If you’re new in a leadership role or aspiring to one, you’ll want to keep your inevitable missteps to the shallow end of the pool. Not, as one company has recently done, take a screaming Triple Lindy off the highest platform into the deep end. Operating within a clearly defined ethical system may help you stay on the right side of the floating pool line.

It's a floating pool line.

Which side of the line are you on?

My company has embraced the customer feedback process as a critical barometer of our performance. In this Age of Information, we’re hardly alone. Consumers of practically every good or service expect real voices of other consumers offering genuine commentary on a prospective purchase. Thinking of trying a new restaurant? Shopping from an unknown Web merchant? Looking for a carpenter to build a deck? All of those potential customers will vet their options against a staggering amount of information available to them — and they’ll probably do it without leaving the couch.

(This is the part of the blog post where I point out that I am speaking from my own perspective based on my own observations and beliefs. I am not revealing any trade secrets or proprietary information. I am not speaking on my employer’s behalf and the opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of my employer. There — legalese out of the way!)

Dealing with negative customer feedback is a business problem which has become more critical as we’ve amassed this wealth of information available to anyone with little effort. It’s a big deal. I get it. And, again, leaders are human and they make mistakes. But if your internal ethical voice (or your organization’s code of ethics) doesn’t start screaming right before you send a forged court document to someone who was critical of your company online, I’d suggest you take some time off. Time off that would be better spent looking for work in a role that doesn’t require ethics. Or any type of authority. Or common sense, really.

Sundance Vacations, a wholesale travel company, is about to get an answer to the question, “What could be worse than one guy saying something bad about us on the internet?” And sadly (for them), the answer is bigger than a breadbox. Read about what is certainly going to be the start of a rough September here.

I don’t think that I’ve tackled a tough subject with this blog post. I feel comfortable pointing out the utter foolishness of a choice to send an allegedly fraudulent document to an online critic. I’m comfortable making the statement that my company would not do something so unethical. We’ve got a formal ethics program and we use it. If this is Monday morning quarterbacking, so be it.

There are lots of — good! — strategies to address negative customer feedback. I’m a fan of listening and taking action to address process flaws. Maybe you could work on setting the right expectation — better framing of your product in a potential customer’s mind — as a marketing function. Maybe you could counter it with positive feedback (obvious reference to today’s story: ensure the positive feedback is not fiction!). Depending on the particulars of the scenario, there are probably a number of other options.

But take it from me. Go ahead and rip the page out of any playbook that begins, “First, find a good example document upon which to base your forgery…”

…and then use that page as tinder for the rest of the playbook, the business model, and the organization. Integrity, as expressed via a code of ethics, is the foundation of every sustainable business model.

Anything else is just playing with fire.

Update: Sundance Vacations has indicated that they did not make the request containing an apparently forged court document and are looking into it. Ken at Popehat is doing his usual yeoman’s work covering this. Check out his perspective here.



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