Blogs & Comment

Business ethics is not about sainthood

Ethics isn't always a matter of heroism; sometimes it's a matter of simply doing your job well.

(Photo: Marcos André/Wikimedia)

One of my shoelaces gave out today, on the way out the door heading to the airport. Luckily the shoe-shine guy, in addition to giving an excellent shine at a good price, also had reasonably-priced laces which he happily threaded and tied for me.

For some reason, it always comes as a shock to me when a shoe lace gives out. The odd thing is that I usually cannot remember how old the disappointing lace actually is. Was it 3-months or 3-years-old? Nor do I know what brand it was, or where I bought it. So—setting aside, for a moment, its trivial price—I have no idea to whom I would complain if I thought the lace had given out sooner than it ought to have.

Given this lack of accountability, one has to wonder what it is that motivates makers of shoelaces (or other small, cheap, anonymous products) to rise above the bare minimum in terms of quality. Shoelace manufacture is not, presumably, a highly-regulated industry. So it could presumably get away with using cheap raw materials, keeping costs down and profits high.

One obvious answer is “ethics.” The people who make shoelaces presumably have some pride in their work, want people to be satisfied with their laces, and feel that it’s their responsibility to produce a decent product.

Another answer might have something to do with supply chains. Maybe I can’t easily hold the maker of my laces accountable, but I can the store at which I bought them. Maybe the store’s purchasing agents ask lots of tough questions and demand access to technical specifications for laces before buying. I hope that’s the case. But that just pushes the question one link higher up the supply chain. Why does the purchasing agent care, given how likely consumers are to express their disappointment, in the event that they are dissatisfied? Again, the likely answer here is “ethics,” a big part of which is the simple motivation to do a good job and treat people fairly.

OK, so this is a trivial little example. But it points to an important lesson. People too often think of the word “business ethics” as implying an attempt to define and achieve saintly behaviour in business. And that’s a mistake. What we’re really talking about are reasonable constraints, and reasonable standards of achievement, in the world of commerce. We’re all out there, trying to make a living, and there are better and worse ways to do that. And whether you’re manufacturing shoelaces or complex financial instruments, the starting point has to be basic pride in a job well, and fairly, done.