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Do the Right Thing:
Managing Your Business
with Morals in Mind


You’ve known people who have done it for years. They hire a brother or sister to work for them and, because they’re family, pay them more in salary or benefits than they do their other staff. Who’s going to find out?

The real question is, What’s right and what’s wrong? Sometimes it’s not so black and white. Other times, it’s clear. Most people are ethical; some are not. The thing is, unethical behavior eventually catches up with the person. Think Enron. Wouldn’t you rather be able to sleep at night?

More importantly, when you do the right thing, your business does right by you. People prefer to shop your tea and coffee store, vendors are more willing to negotiate with you and work with you on any changes or problems, and employees are more likely to be trustworthy.

“Honesty and integrity are paramount to success,” says Russell White, of Russell J. White International, a consulting and training firm in Rock Hill, South Carolina. “If you live ethically, you understand where you’re headed and others will follow because they trust where you’re going.”

Barriers To Ethical Behavior
Your tea and coffee shop’s ethical standards start at the top and work their way down. Says White, “If the president or store manager shows they can get away with whatever they can’t get caught at, it sends a loud message to employees that not getting caught is the same as not doing wrong. Then everyone soon forgets how to be ethical, thus creating an ‘every-man-for-himself ‘attitude among staff and towards vendors and customers.”

This type of behavior can ultimately negatively affect your business. “If being unethical is the norm for you, you may not be able to discern when you can’t get away with it, and then you won’t get away with it,” says Frank Bucaro, professional speaker on ethics, and president of Frank Bucaro & Associates in Elgin, Illinois.

Even ethical businesses have trouble being perceived as such in today’s world where top corporations are cooking (and outright burning!) the books. “People assume that management lacks ethics or integrity,” White continues. “From our experience, we’re seeing a definite trend toward greater barriers to trust in management.”

Self-preservation under the stress of bad economic times or personal, financial hardship contributes to some people’s unethical choices. Many justify wrong-doing believing that no one will find out. “It doesn’t really hurt anyone” is another excuse, along with “Everyone else does it” and “If we don’t do it this way, someone else will, so we’d better do it to stay competitive.” Another is “These guys are rich; they can afford it.” Still others are unethical out of greed or a sense of entitlement, revenge or sheer malice.

If a boss puts pressure on employees to meet unrealistic quotas, some staff may do whatever it takes to reach them, from cheating or lying to customers, to stealing co-workers’ accounts. Disgruntled customers and dissension in the ranks of employees may follow, breeding theft and other workplace violations.

What’s Wrong?

There are many places for unethical behavior to occur:
Vendor violations. Perhaps the vendor was late with that tea order or charged the retailer more than he or she expected for delivery. That store owner might be tempted to retaliate. So, a month later, he or she returns that case of tea, falsely claiming that the packaging got damaged before or during shipment from the vendor. In fact, the owner knows that an employee accidentally ripped the bags, but assumes it’s hard to prove. Or, maybe the retailer over orders those coffee mugs, so he or she can receive a discount, and then returns half the shipment, as planned all along, so the numbers look good on paper. That person would be wise to watch it; vendors are on to that sort of thing. If they get taken advantage of, negatively, often enough, they’ll recognize the abuse, and that can only hurt their clients.

Customer no-no’s. Some retailers deceptively advertise, promoting nonexistent sales or unstocked merchandise, just to get people into the store. Or, their sales presentations intentionally mislead customers. What’s right about selling products from a vendor that the owner knows is going out of business, just to save the expense of customer follow-through? Or, selling a product at full price, claiming it as fresh when it’s actually been sitting in the display case since yesterday? But, “what the heck?”, the store owner thinks. He or she saves a few bucks by avoiding a customer discount - even though discounts are gladly given to family and friends.

Employee infractions. Many retailers similarly reward family and friends, if they’re also staff, by paying them a higher commission or wage. Some ask employees, in general, to accept pay for hours not worked, as an incentive to come in for free on their day off. Or maybe the retailer asks the person to take comp time in exchange for working more than the legal maximum number of workweek hours. Some retailers don’t pay their salespeople all their commissions, knowing that many employees won’t notice, since they don’t understand their commission sheets (or even receive them). As long as they’re getting enough money, they may stay on. But for how long?

Dishonest delegations. What about the store owner who delegates an unethical task to a store manager? “That manager must make a choice to either betray his own conscience and do what keeps his job, or refuse to act and risk getting fired,” says Bucaro. “If he gives in, he’ll be expected to do similarly unethical acts, again. It’s likely to only escalate. The employee must set a precedent. Are his credibility and self-esteem worth risking in order to save his job?” If the person doesn’t complain to the owner or his or her supervisor, he or she will probably think about quitting, anyway. Who needs to stick around for the stress of having one’s belief system challenged?

Financial fudgings. Some people think nothing of taking from the till, assuming the money won’t be missed. And what retailer hasn’t pinched from petty cash? But is this person also covering up a cash shortage to satisfy his or her bank loan’s terms? Is he or she putting expenses and income in the right columns? Are all the accounts receivable current? Are there items that really aren’t assets, that this store owner will never turn into cash? Are all bills indicated as liabilities? Any retailer that indulges in these indecent acts only illegally reduces his or her company’s tax liability, without declaring a dividend. The person is also taking money from the business that could be used to reinvest and grow the business.

Gray areas. This is where the retailer justifies ripping off the government, but not his or her brother; or being dishonest with an out-of-town vendor, but not a local one. Is it wrong not to notify customers about product recalls, or is it just not right? Then there’s failing to tell a customer of tomorrow’s sale price on something he or she wants to buy today. The sliding-scale sale is another example. That’s when the retailer kicks up the price on that wedding cake order, prejudging someone’s wallet and thinking he or she can sell the item for more. But people also drive five miles per hour over the speed limit, fully aware that it’s illegal. So why don’t they drive 20 miles per hour over?

Contributors To Good Ethics
The tea and coffee store owner who contributes to ethical business management is in the possession of:

Strong personal values. The person’s ethical decisions are based on values that originated from his or her upbringing and the life choices made. The successful retail business is built on a strong foundation of these values.

Company code of ethics. When this is well-communicated in the policies and procedures manual, the company has one of the surest safeguards against unethical behavior.

Employee training. Ethical tea and coffee retailers provide clear and regularly updated guidelines to ethical behavior. They role-play common ethical dilemmas that might arise at their store, and how staff should respond to them.

Good staff relationships. Open communication is encouraged with all employees. People who feel a part of their place of employment will more likely invest in its well-being and protect that with their ethical behavior.

System of checks and balances. Tea and coffee store owners with clear ethics initiate and maintain periodic, unannounced audits of store inventories and financial records. They go beyond a mere paper check, and get out there and count the stock and add up the numbers.

A whistle-blower contact. A posted phone number of someone who can respond effectively makes it easy for anyone on staff, from the manager to the janitor, to report any unethical behavior, anonymously if the person wishes.

Trustworthy people. If a retailer is unsure about how to respond to an ethical dilemma, he or she should be able to turn to trustworthy people outside of the company with no other agenda than to help him or her do what’s right.

A profitable business. A financially healthy tea and coffee store can afford to take a good wage and offer the same to its employees, and invest in the growth of the business.

In The End
Set up the right ethical constructs for your business, and you’ll encourage and nurture the right decisions and behavior among your staff, and in your relationships with vendors and customers. Unethical behavior only comes back to haunt the person who engages in it, either with insomnia or (if caught) by getting cut off by employees, customers, banks, suppliers or the community.

Bucaro puts it this way: “Making an ethical decision is like throwing a rock into a pond. No matter how big or small the rock is, when it hits the water, the water is displaced. If the rock is big enough, the water splashes back on you. Therefore, consider the price you pay for every decision you make. And if you can’t pay, walk away.”

Claire Sykes is a freelance business writer based in the Pacific Northwest.

Tea & Coffee - August/September, 2003


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