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Business Ethics — an oxymoron?

My next door neighbour is baffled when I object to him running power tools all Saturday and Sunday long. “But it’s my right!” he exclaims. Indeed it is. What he ignores is that everything allowed by law isn’t necessarily neighbourly. In business, this same attitude comes across as, ‘It doesn’t matter how we treat people as long as it doesn’t affect our bottom line.’

That, presumably, is what magazine editors feel when I go to the trouble of writing and submitting an article, and don’t even get a, ‘Sorry, it’s not for us,’ in reply. About three-quarters of my enquiries are not even rejected; they’re just ignored. So much for the glossy, proudly ‘ethical’ Buddhist publications.

Perhaps they see me as a pesky solicitor impinging on their precious time, but I’m beginning to see the same discourtesy from people who solicit me. Companies enquiring about web design have no trouble peppering me with questions and demanding quotes, but if they decide to not use my services I might be the last to know. Even when they become bona-fide clients, few bother to read the contracts I piece together so painstakingly, and blame me when I explain that an unanticipated task will take extra time — and that it’s not free. Then I’m the bad guy!

Think I’m thin-skinned? That’s hardly the point. Shrugging off their bad behaviour is my decision, not theirs; they’re taking me for granted. What about building a finer workplace culture? That better serves the bottom line than rushing about getting away with whatever you can, doesn’t it? Mindful reflection isn’t just an abstract spiritual fantasy; it’s about focus and finesse, and it’s not just for Buddhists. Call it good manners, business sense, godliness — whatever.

What’s the point of being alive if you don’t reach out? Connecting with the people around us is how we grow. The sick, the losers and the social misfits teach us more than all those faces that fill prime-time TV — because they’re right here in our world; they’re real. There, but for our temporary good fortune, goes each and every one of us.

Some people think life’s just about gain. When things are going well, they preoccupy themselves with a plastic imitation of the good life — but they’re missing out on the real thing, and it shows. They’re not nice because they’re not happy; and they’re not happy because they just don’t get it. Where’s the good life if you only acknowledge the winners you deem worthy of your attention?

Never mind cultural stereotypes: the world is not divided into winners and losers. We all win some, lose some. We’re in the same boat. A bit of commiseration goes a long way, not just to hedge your bets but to gain real insight. The meaning of life is famously impossible to put into words — because it’s not an idea. When you’re in touch with it, however, you know it; you feel it. Nothing’s more concrete than being connected to the world and the people who cross your path, invited or not.

Ignoring your neighbours’ feelings is just the thin end of the wedge. Before long, there’ll be no peace to your weekend and no respect in the workplace, and that’s a pretty grim outlook.

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4 responses to “Business Ethics — an oxymoron?”

  1. Wendy Hledin

    All I can say is “Stephen, you made me laugh!!!” I have been living with noise for 45 years of marriage!!!!! I can just imagine you and your neighbor. When we lived up on Elm, the dyno was right under Scott’s bedroom, and there was a huge smoke stack right outside which vented all the fumes. I lived in fear of neighbors complaining, especially when he tested too long, but never did he start until after ten in the morning, and never did he run after 10 at night. And, of course, the dyno running is usually for short bursts. I can remember some very funny stories of the police coming to the door, only to tell us they wanted to come in and experience what Alex was doing! Down here on the water, his system is more sophisticated and we have never in the 15 years we have been here had a complaint! Even when we for 14 years had all those young kids living beside us in that shack – all the neighbors complained all the time, but no-one has ever mentioned the noise coming from our house – they only phoned the police because of all the noise next door!!!! – I have run out of words. Wendy

  2. Barbara Yule

    Stephen,

    I work as a Head Hunter in the pharma industry so I’m very close to companies that pick you up and spit you out! Try working on a mandate for weeks and the client does not return your calls or e-mails. I refuse to work with companies like this and they know it. I have a good reputation in this industry for giving my candidates time and always returning calls and e-mails no matter how busy I get. Like you said, I think it’s simply good manners to operate like this…what goes around, comes around…very true.

    Barbara Yule

  3. Peter Clothier

    Ah, manners, Stephen. They used to “maketh man”, remember? Now you have to get used to the absence of simplest courtesy, the phone call unreturned, the invitation ignored… The connection you suggest between good manners and happiness is a useful one. So many of us expect others to create our happiness for us, and forget that we can find happiness in helping others find theirs. Lovely post, much needed. Cheers, Peter

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