Nearly all people behave according to two different codes of ethics and this creates major challenges, confusion and considerable misunderstanding in the world of business. (This concept was first articulated by Alfred Carr.) When people become aware of this dual set of ethics and how they work, it helps facilitate personal and professional relationships.
Each code is usually used alternatively, depending upon the situation, but sometimes people attempt to use them simultaneously, which causes anxiety and accusations of dishonesty.Personal ethics is the first code, which many people wrongly think is the only code. For most people, their personal code of ethics says that deliberately deceiving or misleading another person is definitely wrong. Specifically, identifying another person's shortcomings or weakness and then exploiting that for one's own personal gain would also be unethical.
Living the golden rule of doing unto others as you would have them do unto you would be a major element of personal ethics. It is generally a lofty, noble pattern of life with ample amounts of generosity, unselfishness, kindness and gentleness and is usually the guideline in our relationships with family, friends and personal associations.
Gaming ethics is the other code most people use, but most are not consciously aware of the contrast to personal ethics nor of the implications of its use. Gaming ethics, as the name implies, is a code generally used when engaging in competitive games such as poker, monopoly, chess, tennis, football, basketball, etc.
Under this code, deliberately deceiving and misleading others is not only acceptable but is one of those skills that one must develop if one expects to win. A quarterback who cannot effectively deceive the opposing team into believing it is a run when all the time he knows he is going to pass will not win many games.
One of the tennis player's valuable skills is to be able to mislead the opposition into thinking she is going to hit the ball across the court when all the time she knows she is going to put it right down the alley. Any good basketball player learns how to face (deceive) the defense into believing he is going to shoot, thus gets him out of position, then dribbles around.
In playing poker by facial expression, comment or gesture one attempts to mislead other players into thinking one has a good hand or bad hand usually the opposite of reality, to gain an advantage.
A good athletic coach will nearly always assess the opposing team or players' weakness and then design a strategy to take advantage of the weakness for his team's own gain. If a baseball pitcher knows a certain batter has a hard time hitting a low inside ball, that is exactly what he tries to throw. When a tennis player known his opponent has a weak backhand, he will deliberately attempt to take advantage of that weakness.Most everyone praised General Schwarzkopf for his superb cunning in deceiving the Iraqis into thinking a beach landing and a direct frontal attack were going to take place when all along he used this as a ruse to cover his real plan, i.e. use a broad flanking movement to entrap the foe. Often one hears corporate executives use military terms such as a "battle for market share" to describe business strategy.
So, under the code of gaming ethics, deceiving, misleading and taking advantage of another's weakness are not only acceptable but are a developed skill and when executed well are applauded, admired and emulated. Under the code of personal ethics, deceiving, misleading and taking advantage of another's weakness for personal gain are, of course, taboo.
Now the key question in this matter is which code is appropriate for the competitive business world? Is business a competitive game and hence gaming ethics including deception acceptable, or is business a personal matter where the high ideals of the code of personal ethics should prevail?
For instance, in labor-management negotiations, is it all right for management to claim they can't afford more than a 4.5 percent wage increase knowing full well they can go to 7 percent if they have to? Are bluffing and deception just part of the negotiation game? When bargaining for a purchase, are faking and deception all right as part of the game? When preparing a corporate annual report, is it all right to embellish accomplishments and minimize or cover over mistakes or engage in creative accounting that actually hides some debt from the reader?
Is it all right to acquire a competitor's product, analyze it closely to identify its weakness, then deliberately design a product that takes advantage of its weakness, then create advertising that points up the competitor's shortcomings? In personal selling, is manipulating a potential customer by various psychological devices into saying "yes" to close the sale just part of the selling game?
If all of a business's competitors are functioning under code of gaming ethics, can one compete effectively by trying to live by a different set of rules - i.e. personal ethics?
Recognizing that people do carry two different codes of ethics is a useful step in being an ethical person. Then one must decide which is appropriate for business and acknowledge the implications.
Quinn McKay is a business executive consultant and writer in the field of business ethics.