September is PRSA Ethics Month

Every September the Public Relations Society of America commemorates the importance of ethics and advocates upholding its principles to members. Here is the Code of Ethics that outlines the core values and decision-making steps for members to abide by and adhere to the highest industry standards for one’s organization or clients.

Here is my “ETHICS” acronym since they are such a popular part of our business culture and everyday parlance.

   Everything That Helps Individuals Communicate Straight (or Comply with Stakeholders!)

Ethics is such a broad, complicated and much-debated topic in many sectors. Its mere mention can elicit a variety of perspectives and definitions, yielding to further discussion or debate that can be equally vast, divisive and troublesome. With so many controversial examples of ethical behavior looming large in the business and political arenas, ensuring that ethics has a prominent place as a core principle of normal operations is no easy feat. Rather, the elements and tenets of ethics, its considerations and consequences have such a far-reaching impact in which people can delve into philosophy, morality and legality when broaching the topic.

At some point in your career, you may have experienced, observed or read about ethical breaches or questionable situations such as:

  • Disparaging someone to further a cause or undermining a competitor, colleague or client.
  • Having a conflict of interest that wasn’t disclosed at the outset of a relationship or project.
  • Taking a shortcut that might otherwise go unnoticed by other stakeholders.
  • Manipulating information to fit one’s objectives or needs or those of a client.
  • Withholding material information from a member of the media.
  • A person or agency “stealing a client” or “poaching staff” from a rival, directly or indirectly.
  • Allowing others to believe someone else’s work or accolades were yours.

People like to say you can validate or test your response to an ethical scenario by asking yourself one of these questions:

  1. Would you feel good about yourself if your words or actions pertaining to the situation were printed on the front page of the newspaper?
  2. Would your mother be proud of you if she read about it?
  3. What if your actions were read to a ballroom full of your colleagues and friends?

When a potential ethical quandary emerges, one is left to ponder whether it could be a minor bump to navigate through or around (if said individual is the only one consciously aware of it) or does it have the potential to mushroom into a minefield of public awareness (when action is eventually discovered by organization, client, customer or independent third party).

Does the element of discovery only make an ethical breach more unacceptable? It is perhaps similar to the old saying about a tree falling in the forest with no one to hear it. If no other parties to the situation realize the significance of an ethical implication or ensuing consequences, is it a forgivable error, whether by acts of commission or omission, or a major professional transgression and violation of trust that could bring shame to the practitioner and his or her organization or firm?

Does your organization have a concrete code of ethics manual or resource guide to consult when faced with situations that require good judgment and proper decision making? Its scope and relevance probably should be formally addressed and posted or published in some fashion. Such a guide should also be issued as a requirement for managers and employees to sign as an acknowledgement and intent to comply, agreement to accept as part of the company’s culture and knowledge of location for quick access and reference for employees.

Earmarking the position ethics and decision-making principles holds within organizations and the emphasis in which they are maintained may vary among industries and individuals in terms of their priority or commitment. The ideals that come from developing and embracing an ethical standard guide outlining honesty and fairness when dealing with an organization’s many stakeholders and the public surely would seem to be strong candidates for universal adoption in the business world.

One person’s ceiling is another man’s floor, and the subjective, philosophical interpretations of ethical conduct pose so many sides to so many scenarios to opposing participants, creating the proverbial “grey area” or “he said/she said” defenses. Who is to judge when two sides are pitted against each other in their pursuit of their competitive objectives or management-mandated incentives, deemed righteous and earned in their eyes?

Even when the need arises for an attorney, mediator, ombudsmen or a human resources referee, both sides of a given ethical dispute may never budge even if the facts and actions are clearly documented for all parties to dissect in the aftermath.

If only the deployment of ethical behavior and the importance of honesty and disclosure were as simple as The Golden Rule. It is often a little more complicated than that oft-cited virtue depending on situations, perspectives and priorities. Perhaps The Silver Rule could at least be embraced in which one always aims to do the right thing by their organization and stakeholders.

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