Business Ethics Hinge On People

March 7, 2003
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ADA — The West Michigan chapter of the Public Relations Society of America backs a national call for business leaders to adopt ethical business practices and help restore public trust eroded by the recent rash of corporate scandals.

As Doug DeVos, president of Alticor Inc., sees it, ethics is not a business problem; it’s a people problem. Bogus financial statements don’t create themselves; people create them, he said.

“When we talk about ethics in business, I think we have to start by talking about people. People are going to do things right or they’re not,” DeVos told members of the West Michigan Public Relations Society of America at a recent luncheon at Alticor headquarters.

It’s not just the CEOs, the analysts and the stockholders who are to blame for the tainting of Corporate America; the blame lies with people and their ability or inability to discern right from wrong and good from bad, he said.

“I’ve heard trust defined as consistency over time. What is your consistent behavior over a period of time? How do you earn trust? Well, of course, right now trust has eroded because what people are seeing is bad behavior in business specifically and that’s what’s in all the papers and that’s what everyone’s hearing.”

How do public relations and communications professionals help build trust for their organizations?

“Building trust, from my perspective, is something I’ve had the privilege to be able to watch around here,” DeVos said of his years with the company his father co-founded.

Public relations professionals must continually communicate what’s right and what’s wrong, and that’s particularly crucial with the trust crisis corporate America faces today, he said. Worldwide, the current perception is that everyone in business is bad.

Too often it takes a crisis before somebody starts talking. Why wait so long? Why not tell people about what’s going on? DeVos asked.

“As a public relations professional, when you are in the midst of looking at your team, you’re going to be put in a position of trying to evaluate if the information you’re getting is real or if there’s something wrong with it.

“Being part of a team or being part of an organization is going to require you to make judgments about the people with whom you work. Are they telling you everything? Are they telling you the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth? I think as professionals you have to learn to trust your instincts.”

As professionals and members of an association with a code of ethics and standards, public relations practitioners have to set a standard, too, DeVos said.

The “iceberg of ignorance” theory has it that top executives don’t know that much about what’s really going on in the company. DeVos said there may be some truth to that. If something doesn’t feel right or smell right, do some investigating and find out what’s really happening, he suggested.

“Don’t just count on the CEO or the board of auditors to find it. Everyone in the organization has to be accountable for what is going on in the organization. Checks and balances don’t just happen at the top level, they have to happen at all levels.”

Business has new accountability rules to abide by and companies have their own rules employees are supposed to abide by, but that doesn’t necessarily fix the problem because the problem always comes back to people, he said.

“Your ability to know people and to understand and to ask questions to get behind the information you see on the face is important.” Equally important is the public relations professional’s ability to translate that information to others in the organization, he added.

“You need a feel for what’s happening in your organization. What is the governing structure? Who are the people surrounding the leadership? Are they talking to them honestly, openly, directly?

“If you’re going to be the mouthpiece, if you’re going to be the one talking to the public about what is happening in your organization, you need to be satisfied with what’s happening in your organization.”

When something goes wrong, it goes wrong, and companies should be forthright about it and admit it, then take those mistakes and move forward, he said. His advice is to communicate thoroughly and communicate often.

That’s a culture that can be bred into an organization, he said.

He added that the culture of Alticor is rooted in strong Christian values long shared by both the DeVos and Van Andel families. Growing up in that environment, DeVos said, “We were taught what was right and wrong, good and bad, and stuck to it.”

He recalled the difficulty major changes wrought in the company three years ago when Amway was restructured into Alticor and 1,300 employees worldwide lost their jobs. But one thing that didn’t change was the company’s values, he said.

“We found that our values work every day. We found that our values stand the test of time around the world.”

Partnership, integrity, personal responsibility and personal worth are things that resonate with people all around the world, he said. Products will come and go, programs will come and go, and maybe there will be changes in the way the company operates as time goes on, he said.

“But we’re always going to have a moral compass. A lot of times in ethics, I think, it comes down to a moral compass. And in your job as professionals trying to communicate the ethics of your organization, you’re going to have to make judgments about the moral compass when the people who are in charge are asking you to say something.

“In that process, stand up for yourself, stand up for your organization and stand up for what is right. When you make a comment, people won’t have a worry because they will trust you.”  

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