It all depends, doesn’t it?

When I started my business, one of the things my coach got me to do was to write out a statement of operating principles for myself. This was a statement of what my business standards were going to be - what I would do and what I wouldn’t do.

At the time, I was puzzled because I was far more worried about things like whether to register for VAT or not but since then I've seen the wisdom of this over and over again.

Just the other day I had some work done at the dentist that left me with a pronounced lisp, although luckily it didn’t last long. Unfortunately, during that time I had to make a telephone and I was coping all right until the lady at the other end asked me where I was based.

"Essex" I said but it came out as "Ethics" which brings me neatly to this weeks tip (I know, I know!).

It seems that ethics (aka Corporate Social Responsibility) are the hot topic at the moment. We are facing the unedifying sight of politicians doing their best to wow us with their words when we know that frequently there is a huge gap between their words and their actions.

In the business world too great trouble awaits those that act unethically but many businesses seem to have a genuine struggle understanding what is ethical behaviour and what isn’t.

Part of the problem is that we no longer agree on what is ethical or not.

I suppose 50-60 years ago most people subscribed to a Judeo-Christian set of ethics and more or less agreed what was right and what was wrong. In those days you could reference your behaviour against a set of culturally understood prescriptions.

Since then though we've seen the rise of "relativism" where ethics have moved away from rigid prescriptions and are more situational. Behaviour is no longer compared to a standard but compared to what everyone else is doing.

A good example of this is late payment. "Everybody pays their suppliers after 30 days so we are going to pay our suppliers after 30 days (or more)" "It's just the way business works." So, it's no longer seen as unethical to withhold payment for goods or services because that's what everybody does.

In this country we tend to form orderly queues and pushing in is seen as unfair. In other countries pushing in is a legitimate tactic for shopping. Is there an ethical standard for queuing or does it depend where you are standing?

Another example are school dinners. People get very excited if a TV personality swears on television but the same people are quite happy to allow their children to be fed on cheap, harmful food with barely a murmur.

How is this relevant to us as managers?

Well, somebody once said "if you don’t stand for anything then you will probably stand for anything". In other words, if you lack a coherent personal set of ethics then almost anything goes, particularly if your standards depend on what everybody else does.

It's in our nature to appeal to an ethical standard. How many times have you heard someone say "It's not fair" or "That's not right". We probably don’t all agree on who to be fair to or how to be fair but we do agree that there is such a thing as "fairness" and people ought to practice it.

In fact, we could sum up what we know about ethics as:

So my tip this week is to prepare your own statement of operating principles.

How is this useful?

It can be really useful to know what your personal boundaries are because it helps you make deciscions and navigate through working life while staying true to yourself. Not being true to yourself is often at the root of discontent at work or with life in general.

You’ll find that if you are not clear about your own boundaries you will end up working for people who are clear - even if their boundaries are very different from your own.

Use the questions to help you prepare your own statement of operating principles:

Using this with others

This would be a useful exercise to do with a team. The discussion about boundaries of behaviour can really help a team pull together, particularly if they agree the boundaries between themselves.

Here's a useful behaviour test for individuals and teams