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Honesty, reputation and ethics

The connection between reputation and ethics is complex. A pattern of ethical behaviour is essential to establishing a good reputation, but from a business point of view is it ethical?

The connection between reputation and ethics is complex. A pattern of ethical behaviour is clearly essential to establishing a good reputation, which for a company means a reputation as the kind of company people want to do business with. But hold on. All that’s really essential, from a business point of view, is to be perceived as ethical. But there are two ways of reading that ancient point. The cynical way is to say that all that matters in business is to give people the impression that you’re ethical, and that can be done through good PR or even outright misrepresentation. The less cynical way of reading that is that you’ve got not just to be ethical, in the sense of doing what you think is the right thing to do; you’ve also got to convince key stakeholders that you’ve done the right thing.

Take honesty, for example. Honesty matters, but so do public perceptions of honesty. In that regard, see this useful piece on corporate disclosure, by Steven M Davidoff for the NY Times: In Corporate Disclosure, a Murky Definition of Material.

Most of the piece is an exploration of the legal standard of “materiality.” Materiality is essentially about relevance. Publicly-traded companies are obligated to reveal certain information to the investing public (typically through filings with the relevant regulatory agency). But not everything they do needs to be reported — not everything is sufficiently important — and there are lots of legitimate reasons why companies don’t want to reveal any- and everything. Figuring out just what needs to be disclosed is a difficult legal problem. But towards the end of the piece, Davidoff argues that companies should avoid focusing on mere legalities. As Davidoff points out:

Companies need to understand that information disclosure is not just a legal game. Failure to disclose important information on a timely basis can harm a company’s reputation.

So, it’s all about reputation, about ‘optics’? “What about ethics?” you ask. But consider: why would a failure of disclosure harm a company’s reputation? In part, it would do so because (or if) the failure harms people’s interests. But even then, harming someone’s interests won’t immediately harm reputation. If, for example, Ford designs a new SUV that’s so good that sales of GM’s SUV’s fall, putting thousands of GM employees out of work, well, that’s bad for GM’s employees, but the harm done to them by Ford is not going to damage Ford’s reputation. Because, after all, the harm done to the employees was the result of fair competitive practices on the part of Ford. A company’s behaviour is only going to hurt its reputation if some critical mass of people see that behaviour as unethical. So in the end, even a concern about “mere reputation” has to be grounded in ethical principles.