Truth or consequences

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Truth or consequences

Sure enough, your mission statement is a thing to behold, with the potential to light up the world. But it isn’t the Mona Lisa. You can print it out in fancy fonts, frame it, and hang it. It’s still not a work of art unless it inspires you to embrace the art of working and living ethically.

Your code of ethics — the moral standards you use to relate to the world — bridges the distance between listing your ideals and living them.

Ethical living, consistently choosing to do what’s right, is its own reward. To be sure, it’s easy to resist everything but temptation, to paraphrase Oscar Wilde. Lots of things may look fun (and they are) and some things may also look harmless (but they aren’t).

Immoral behavior has lethal side effects for your business, employees, and yourself. Before you sidestep your conscience, consider the consequences.

Consequences of behavior

1) You’re being watched. Put aside for a moment the nanotechnology that makes cameras the size of push pins. Look around. The people who report to you are watching your every move.

Our natural competitive impulse finds us keeping an eye on one another. So often we raise the bar higher for others than we do for ourselves. One slip and we’re instant grist for the gossip mill.

But it’s worse for the boss. Employees model their leaders like children model their parents.

Swipe a few pads of Post-it notes and people will think that it’s open season on the supply cabinet. That’s why I gave my assistant, Dorie, an ongoing kitty of $100 to pay for personal expenses like snacks and postage. I obeyed every rule and received the same discount on tires and car repairs as everyone else.

2) You’ll know it. Some people wrap themselves into logic pretzels to justify dubious decisions. But deep down, where the best part of them lives, they know better. New York Times columnist William Safire explained it well:

”The right to do something does not mean that doing it is right.”

Take the time my company car’s lease expired. I upgraded to a more expensive model when profits came in below expectations and the entire company was in belt-tightening mode.

Even if nobody so much as raised an eyebrow, it didn’t feel right to force the company to take the hit for my higher car payment. So I asked human resources to take an extra $300 a month out of my paycheck. All the same, I also asked HR each year to compare my compensation against our CPA firm’s national CEO market survey to ensure I was in line.

Those rare occasions I did compromise my conscience wound up costing me, often in subtle ways — I wasn’t fully present around others, or the lump in my stomach wouldn’t go away. That led to polluted thinking and bad decisions.

Sense you have an employee feeling guilty about a past decision? Tell them they’re not alone. To the extent you can, speak broadly about forgiving yourself for past errors. Tell them they know better now and they can resolve to avoid the same mistake again. Tomorrow is a new day with new opportunities to act honorably. We already know that it’s deeply rewarding to do what’s right for the sake of doing what’s right.

So take the high road — there’s less traffic.

[PAGEBREAK]3) You’re gambling with your good name. When news broke that Arthur Andersen had shredded Enron documents and committed other crimes and misdemeanors, the Big Six accounting firm’s reputation was tarnished for good. It wasn’t long ago that the overnight collapse of a global goliath was unimaginable. Now, there are days when the business section of the newspaper reads like a rap sheet.

We live in a transparent age. Corporations have glass walls. Disgruntled employees can e-mail incriminating documents faster than you can say, “Not guilty, your honor.”

If you bend the rules even once, you’re asking for trouble. Same goes for your personal life.

After the sale of Tires Plus to Bridgestone Firestone was made public, I received an unsolicited call from a well-known accounting firm that I had never engaged. They told me I could save several million dollars in taxes by setting up an offshore account. But, they added, while the loophole was legally defensible and wasn’t likely to ever face a court challenge, it wasn’t for the faint of heart.

I don’t like paying a penny more in taxes than I have to. But I do feel good about paying my share to recognize the opportunities that this good country gave me to earn a good living. When I hear “offshore,” I walk the other way. I’ve worked too hard for too long to run the risk of staining my reputation.

It’s not a question of faintheartedness; it’s a matter of right-heartedness. The dollar amount was irrelevant. You can’t put a price tag on a good night’s sleep, or a good family name.    ■

This article is one of a series from “The Big Book of Small Business” by Tom Gegax with Phil Bolsta. Copyright 2005, 2006 by Tom Gegax. Published by arrangement with HarperCollins Publishers.

Best-selling author Tom Gegax, co-founder and chairman emeritus of Tires Plus stores, served as that company’s chairman and CEO for 24 years. By the time he sold the company in July 2000, it had mushroomed from a concept sketched on a restaurant napkin to a market leader with 150 upscale stores in 10 states and $200 million in revenue.

Thanks to Tom’s warm-hearted, tough-minded approach to management, and his team’s relentless focus on customer service, the company’s turnover rate ranked among the industry’s lowest, and its guest enthusiasm index reached 98%. He was named Modern Tire Dealer’s Tire Dealer of the Year in 1998 and a Midwest Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. magazine.

In 2000, Gegax founded Gegax Management Systems ( to help growing companies raise profits and reduce stress through fast and affordable business management guidance.

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