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[Times art: Teresanne Cossetta ]

Treat others as you wish to be treated

Your judgment affects everyone

By GEORGE SHERMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 2, 2000


Welcome to the St. Petersburg Times' Newspaper in Education page! This year's series is about something we all love and wish we had more of: money. Throughout the school year in this space you will find fun and informational stories about how to earn, keep and save money. Developed by the Florida Council on Economic Education, the series explores such topics as personal finance, business etiquette and ethics, making decisions, managing your time and money and more, all geared toward you, not just your parents! We hope you enjoy this economic adventure.

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Would you be interested in a good-paying job with full benefits plus free education and advancement opportunities? What if this job were with a highly respected community employer with a proven track record of success? This past year the human resources officer of such a company lamented that she had 1,000 jobs like this that she could not fill because the applicants lacked the necessary skills.

What were these missing skills? Not computer knowledge, not math, not economics. The missing skills were all related to common ethics. The people interviewed lacked the basics of etiquette and character. They did not know how to treat people with respect, take responsibility for their actions and behave honestly.

Why ethics in business?

Why would a business care about the character of its employees? First, a company usually acts with a vision and a mission, both of which drive the many decisions company managers make each day. They need employees who understand that higher purpose and who, as a matter of habit, use ethical behavior in their everyday actions. All businesses want team players who will follow the ethical lead of the business.

Second, being ethical makes money. Companies that treat their customers with respect, take responsibility for their products and are honest in their sales presentations have more customer loyalty, more favorable word of mouth and more profit. These ethical companies strive to hire employees who demonstrate these traits as a matter of character and habit.

Ethical employees make money for businesses in other important ways. Consider honesty. Employee theft is one of the highest costs of doing business. In some industries, just hiring honest people will make the difference between making a profit or going broke. In some service industries, nursing homes for example, responsible employees who come to work on time, get the job done and respect the customers can protect the business from needless lawsuits, which saves thousands of dollars for profits.

Show the employer your ethics

How do job applicants show they have ethics when they come for an interview? First, an interviewer is looking for people who respect the business as well as themselves. A person who comes to the interview dirty or poorly dressed is demonstrating a lack of respect for both. A person who comes in with an "attitude" that they are owed a job, or who addresses the interviewer in a rude or common way, demonstrates a lack of character.

A well-dressed person who is polite and interested in the job demonstrates the kind of character a business is looking for. A person can show a responsible attitude about work by coming to the interview on time, bringing a neatly done resume and discussing the importance of work in her life. These are the behaviors that show the interviewer you are a serious job applicant. Talk honestly about yourself. A small lie or exaggeration during an interview demonstrates a serious lack of honesty that any employer will avoid. A weak resume honestly presented is more powerful than a great resume based on half truths.

What does ethical behavior look like?

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[Times art: Teresanne Cossetta ]

Ethics has to be more than what you show at an interview. Ethics is something that is part of you, something you do every day out of habit, without thinking twice.

• Your job is to put new tires on a car. It is after quitting time, you have a date and this is the last nut on the last tire. You accidentally cross-thread the nut and you realize your mistake too late. The air wrench has twisted the nut up the threads and it won't come off without major effort. What do you do? Some people would think, "It's late and I want to get home. It's a new tire, and the driver won't have to change it for years, and by that time he'll forget where he even bought it. If I admit the mistake, the boss might get angry and make me replace the bolt. I'll just keep my mouth shut."

This behavior does not pass even the simplest test of ethical decision-making. How does putting a defective tire on the road help anyone? How would you feel if you had a flat on the road, only to find you could not remove the nut because it was cross-threaded? If every business acted this way, no one could trust that safety was guaranteed. If you buy a safety item from a business, you would expect it to perform the right way. That is not the kind of world any of us wants to live in. Would that driver ever go back to that business?

Employers want people who quickly realize they made a mistake and make it right. The ethical employee goes to the boss and says, "I really messed up. I cross-threaded that nut, and it will take me 15 minutes to replace it. I'm really sorry." A customer who hears the truth, and recognizes that people will work to make it right, returns to the business he can trust. A boss who knows his employee will act responsibly as a reflex will trust that person with more and more important jobs. Ethical behavior always pays off in the long run.

• You are working the cash register at a clothing store. A customer is making a purchase, and as you begin to wrap it up you see that the item is defective. Some people would think, "If I say anything, the customer will want to give it back. What a pain! I'll just let it go, and hope I won't be here if they do come back."

This does not pass the ethics tests, either. How does selling defective items help a business? How would you feel if someone knowingly sold you a bad product? What if everyone did that? This bad decision may take less effort than replacing the goods, but it is clearly wrong.

Instead, you say, "I'm sorry, sir, but this item has a defect. Do you want to go back and select another? Would you like me to call a salesman over to help you?" This is how you would want to be treated. A customer treated this way will trust your business and come back. Employers want people who act ethically as a matter of habit. Ethical character is a plus in business.

Ethics is a two-way street

If you are an ethical person, you expect your employer to treat you ethically. What if your employer treats you with disrespect or asks you to do something unethical?

• You work for a retailer. He pays you for seven hours, but expects you to close up, total the receipts and clean up before you leave -- on your time, not his. This is clearly disrespectful. He is getting value from your effort and owes you the money. In fact, this behavior is illegal as well. You have two options. You can demand payment for your work. Or you can quit.

• You work for a painting company, painting houses. Your boss puts cheap paint in expensive paint cans and charges the customer for the higher-priced product. You know this is unethical and cheating the customer. And your boss has placed you in the unethical position of having to use an inferior paint and pretend to the customer it is the expensive paint. What can you do? The best course is to quit.

Ethics is not something you can compromise. The first time you are knowingly unethical, it is hard. But each time you do an unethical act, it gets easier as it becomes habit. Eventually, unethical behavior becomes your habit and your character. This is the character of a loser. Many people say, "But I need the job." There are two answers to this. First, you will not have the job very long. Most unethical businesses are found out, and go out of business. In recent years in our community we have seen used car dealers who turned back odometers closed down, medical companies who inflated bills forced into bankruptcy and dishonest car repair shops put out of business.

An unethical person might feel comfortable in such a business, and even make money for a while before failing. Unethical behavior works only in the short term.

But as an ethical person, you have highly marketable skills: your character traits. Remember the business looking for ethical people to train and promote? Ethics sells, because ethics means success. If an employer knows that you will treat customers with respect, take responsibility for your actions and be honest in your dealings, that business will hire you, whether you have any other skills or not. Time and again human resource officers say it is easier to train people in business skills if they already have ethics skills.

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[Times art: Teresanne Cossetta ]
You are building your future

A person might make a lot of money for a short time by being unethical. Many people, including those who have never developed the skills of ethics, may be tempted by this opportunity. However, you will be around for a long time. You are building your entire life, and over a lifetime the ethics you practice give others a clear perspective of who you are. Stop and ask yourself if you really want to bounce around from one unethical business to another for the rest of your working life. If the business treats customers unethically, how do you think it is going to treat you?

The key to building a successful life is to make the behaviors of success a habit. When you act ethically as a matter of personal habit, businesses and customers will seek you out. Whether you choose to go into business for yourself or choose to work for another company, ethics pays dividends. If you are known as a person who respects people, takes responsibility for your actions and is honest, you will be successful in your life, personally and professionally. You will have a life to be proud of, and be a true role model for your own children and others.

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-- George Sherman, behavioral specialist at Walsingham Elementary School in Largo, has taught in Pinellas County schools since 1986. He serves on a University of South Florida/Pinellas County schools task force developing ethics curriculums for grades K-12.

About the Florida Council on Economic Education

Money Stuff was developed by the Florida Council on Economic Education and project director Fonda Anderson. The council is a statewide non-profit organization founded in 1975 to educate K-12 teachers and students about the free enterprise system and to instill in them an appreciation for a market economy. For more information on the council's programs for teachers and students, please call (813) 289-8489.

About Newspaper in Education

The St. Petersburg Times devotes news space to NIE features throughout the year, including this classroom series. The Times' NIE department works with local businesses and individuals to enrich the classroom experience by providing newspapers, supplemental guides and educational services to schools in the Tampa Bay area. To find out how you can become involved in NIE, please call (727) 893-8969 or (800) 333-7505, ext. 8969. For past chapters on finance, check out http://www.sptimes.com/nie and click on Money Stuff.

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