Editor's note, August 2012: This feature was just recognized as a 2012 Azbee Award of Excellence winner. The awards for business-to-business magazine editorial excellence are sponsored by the American Society of Business Press Editors.

Lots going on these days. Weather challenges, rapidly advancing technologies, crazy markets, uncertainty on government programs and another year-end buying rush, to name a few. But just as critical as these things are to your operation, we, as a business magazine, also find an obligation to cover other management issues from time to time.

I'm talking about business ethics, integrity and principles.

Several in my peer group of small business owners have experienced, or been witness to, recent ethical episodes we can't imagine having occurred as freely during our father's and grandfather's generation. Some have even gone so far as to wonder aloud whether ethical business standards will remain a "standard" in the years ahead.

How did we get here? Part of it, I think, is that there are fewer models of ethics today. Ask your employees to name a public figure that embodies the words ethics, integrity and principles and you'll be lucky to get a single living person. Many today know less about Abraham Lincoln, Mother Teresa and Winston Churchill than they do about professional athletes and entertainment personalities, a sad commentary in its own right.

Further, there are signs that we've entered a "Generation Me" age that disdains structure and brags about self interest as their guiding principle. E-technologies also allow behavior outside of the watchful eye of those who might otherwise keep them on the right track.

It wasn't so long ago that an ethical crisis put our own farm equipment industry (Walterman Implement) in the national headlines, with a mess still being cleaned up 5 years later. I'd argue that such downfalls, and others of the Enron variety, can be traced to a root decision, maybe made many years earlier, when ethics were shelved — perhaps over a so-called "minor" or a "temporary" indiscretion. But once principles are compromised, it becomes a "slippery slope."

Ethics are the foundation of everything we do in business, but often get little attention. While I'd put our management team and staff up against any measure, we'll soon be devoting management time to review, and discuss, the operating principles we established 5 years ago. In the meantime, here's some food for thought for all of us:

  • We can't look at others through our own lens, believing everyone follows the same value system. Soft-side issues like ethics and integrity probably deserve at least as much training time as diesel engine maintenance.
  • A code of ethics and clearly stated operating principles are a must. In a world where some will seek the "gray area" for their own personal gain, we need to aim for "black and white." Hang those principles on the wall for all to see and follow. One of my mentors had a formal guideline at his company that stated, "Never do anything you wouldn't want in the newspapers." Well-put, and sets the table for a good check-and-balance system.
  • Trust but verify. As uncomfortable and daunting as it may sound, the general must be held accountable for the actions of his/her lieutenants.
  • And if you're one of the "lieutenants," if something doesn't smell right, hit the brakes. Good careers have been ruined by listening to the wrong person.

Finally, recognize those on your team who "live" your principles and mission. While standing before our employees and spouses at our 30th anniversary party last month, the collective character of our group hit me like a two-by-four, and brought words of appreciation and thanks.

Recognition of folks "doing things right" is another way to maintain that path. And that's a worthy guiding principle in its own right.