British novelist C.S. Lewis famously said, "Integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching." Although nearly every business student takes a class on business ethics, a quick survey of today's political, technological and business climate shows there is still work to do.
In truth, fault often lies with industries rather than a single company or person. Business sectors, especially in technology, are constantly evolving, presenting new ethical challenges for CEOs to navigate.
When demand for new products outpaces government regulations, it's up to individual businesses to take the lead. For example, autonomous vehicle technology has now outpaced auto regulations set by Congress. Consumers are relying on auto companies to make ethical decisions behind closed doors to ensure drivers' safety – even when the car is on autopilot.
So, how can individual businesses be ethical role models?
1. Start the conversation. Cultivate a culture of trust so employees feel comfortable raising potential red flags. Constantly evaluate business practices to ensure ethics are incorporated in the decision-making process.
2. Don't wait for the crisis. Planning is key when it comes to weathering a crisis but are you planning for the correct crisis? In 2015, the EPA discovered Volkswagen was intentionally falsifying emission reports. Three years later, the company is still dealing with intense public disapproval and legal ramifications. The company made an unethical decision behind closed doors, setting itself up for an inevitable crisis. As a business owner, I've faced these tough, ethical decisions head on. When I founded Bensussen Deutsch & Associates in 1984, most branded merchandise firms were small mom and pop shops. However, through luck and grit, BDA grew quickly and needed to begin sourcing globally to meet demand. Before long, we encountered safety and quality concerns with our suppliers that put us at a crossroads. Either we would gloss over the concerns and continue business as usual – which was booming – or, we could completely change our sourcing practices and do what was right for our customers. We chose the latter, even when no one was looking.
3. Don't be afraid to lead the way and set industry standards. No regulations? No problem. If the demand or technology for a product moves faster than current regulations, consider taking the lead for your industry. At BDA, we made it our mission to elevate the standards of the growing promotional products industry. We founded the Quality Certification Alliance (QCA) in 2008 to ensure safe, high quality, socially compliant and environmentally responsible merchandise is produced by BDA and our fellow QCA members. Today, QCA is the promotional product industry's only independent non-profit organization dedicated to helping suppliers provide safe and compliant products.
4. Focus on long-term, sustained growth rather than short-term gain. Ethical decisions are rarely the most profitable decisions but doing the right thing benefits companies in the end.
5. Prioritize your customer. Millennials, the most ethically-minded generation yet, now make up the largest percentage of the workforce (35% according to Pew Research Center). Customers expect their preferred providers to prioritize transparency, sustainability and global citizenship. If you know your customers will care about something, get ahead of the curve and do what's right.
Jay Deutsch is the CEO of Bensussen Deutsch & Associates, LLC (BDA), the company he co-founded more than 30 years ago with his best friend, Eric Bensussen. Since their first order with the Seattle Seahawks, it has been Jay's and Eric's mission to help companies and sports leagues successfully engage consumers and fans through branded merchandise. BDA's client list now includes many companies in the Fortune 1000 such as AT&T, Ford and FedEx and teams from every US major sports league. As a collaborative partner with clients, BDA touches all aspects of the promotional products business, providing creativity and innovation, supply chain management, eCommerce, fulfillment and distribution and customer service.