CEO Adviser: Do the Right Thing

March 21, 2014

Jim Rupp

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ABC and NPR news analyst Cokie Roberts enjoys telling about her daughters involvement in a Seattle political campaign after working in Chicago politics. She called her mother and said, Mom, you wouldnt believe it out here. Theyre all honest! When former Seattle Police Chief Pat Fitzsimons first came to Seattle from New York for his job interview, he was startled to look out his hotel window at 3 a.m. and see pedestrians waiting in the rain for the crosswalk sign to say Walk. He knew then that people out here are different.
I have talked to many people who have advised local companies and served on local boards of directors, and they agree that when it comes to ethical business practices, we are different. Sure, our region has seen business corruption, but, by and large, local businesses operate responsibly.
As companies grow, it can be challenging to maintain an ethical course. A good way to do so is to have a Do the Right Thing philosophy ingrained in the business culture. It helps reduce the risks of costly legal attacks and raises the level of trust among employees, customers, investors and the public.
A Do the Right Thing approach focuses on five critical questions:
Is the proposed conduct legal?
Is what youre contemplating consistent with your companys values?
If you do it, might you feel bad?
Do you think it might be wrong?
How would it look if your conduct was publicized and went viral?

Asking those questions might guide you to treat an employee fairly even if the law doesnt obligate you to do so, or refrain from attacking a competitors reputation, or decide not to do business with a partner you cant trust to do the right thing.
An effective Do the Right Thing approach also includes three guidelines for employees:
If youre unsure about how to proceed, know that you can get help from others. Discuss your concerns with coworkers, your manager or the human resources or legal departments.
If you dont get a clear answer, ask others until you do. This requires an open culture in which people feel free to seek guidance from others.
Meeting month-, quarter- or year-end goals is never justification for doing the wrong thing. Business reputation, profits and employee morale can be quickly reduced when a wrong choice is taken to meet forecasts.

When a Do the Right Thing philosophy is part of day-to-day operations, a company can concentrate on business, not on meetings with lawyers or government investigators, giving depositions and going to court. With a Do the Right Thing culture, there are no guarantees problems wont occur, but it will reduce the risks of adverse results and help get back on course when someone wants to deviate.
Instilling Do the Right Thing into a business culture depends on more than an occasional presentation. In my experience, it is most effective when it becomes a meaningful part of a culture that employees believe is permanent. Practicing it regularly and continually achieves results. Mention it often. Include it in standards of conduct and weave it into management meetings, sales conferences and new employee training.
I have found that employees are proud to work for a company with a Do the Right Thing culture in which all work together and grow the business while staying true to the organizations core values. Your customers, stockholders and others who are watching your company will be equally pleased and impressed.

Jim Rupp, former general counsel of Fluke Corporation, practices law in Seattle.