I know, I know — just mentioning ethics in the workplace seems like a joke these days. After all, this is the era of Enron and WorldCom, where billion-dollar bankruptcies wiped out the life savings and disrupted cash flow for hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of families while the corporate honchos responsible for the mess kept their riches.
Ken Lay isn't living on unemployment in a rotting Winnebago, and Bernie Ebbers hasn't had to sell his fine collection of cowboy boots to put food on the table.
Why toe the ethical line when people are lying and cheating their way to millions?
“You have to take the high road because it's not only the right thing to do, it's the best thing to do — for both your professional and personal life,” Bruce Weinstein, ethicist and author of “What Should I Do? 4 Simple Steps to Making Better Decisions in Everyday Life,” told me recently. “In the short run you can get away with it and even benefit from lax ethics,” he said. “But when you take the low road, sooner or later you'll get caught and be subject to the worst kind of PR — the kind you'll never be able to leave behind.”
Weinstein uses Pete Rose an example. “Sure, all kinds of baseball players who've exhibited loutish behavior get into the Hall of Fame, but Pete Rose still can't,” he pointed out. “He got caught cheating in sports. And as a result his ethical problems have cost him the one thing he truly wants — to be in baseball's Hall of Fame.”
Weinstein is a tireless promoter of a single concept: Ethics matter and need to be taken seriously, especially in business. “Everyone in business…is under stress these days,” he said. “But just because someone else cheats doesn't give us the right to do it,” Weinstein emphasized. “And in trucking, the repercussions are much larger. It's more than just the driver's or manager's life and well-being at stake here.”
It's important to think of the lives of the people traveling next to the trucks on the highways or rural roads — and the services they rely on that are provided directly or indirectly by trucks — before undertaking an ethically dubious course of action, such as skimping on maintenance.
“Part of living an ethical life is thinking about what happens outside of ourselves as a result of our actions,” Weinstein said. “And with ethics, actions are all that matter. It's not what we say that counts; it's what we do that determines our ethical standing.”
That's all the more important in the freight world, added Bob Voltman, executive director of the Transportation Intermediaries Assn. (TIA). “There are no cops on the business beat in transportation — no enforcement of contract rules like what we have for trucking and railroad safety,” he told me. “It's still a market where a great deal of trust is needed in order to function properly — trust between the shipper, the freight broker or third-party logistics provider and the carrier that services will be provided and paid for.”
Voltman pointed out that trust works 99% of the time. “But that 1% could put a small carrier out of business or cause a shipper's factory to shut down,” he noted. That's why when TIA was formed in 1978, the first thing its 14 original members did was to formulate and sign a code of ethics.
“To us, ethics is a badge of honor; it's the ‘Good Housekeeping’ seal of approval. It tells the market that we agree — of our own free will, without government oversight — to follow a set of rules regarding payment, conduct, etc.,” Voltman explained. “From our viewpoint, that helps with business. It helps the market establish the trust that is so vital to keeping the freight moving.”