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Now Is The time For All to Recommit to Business Vows

by Alf Nucifora

An email from a reader in Milwaukee, and its intelligently written tone that said, "I care", got my attention. The writer bemoaned the serious lack of personal accountability in today's society. "It's an epidemic in the business world," she wrote. "People don't seem to be compelled to be honest and responsible. Follow-through seems more like a language from Mars than a basic responsibility." She got my attention. And I couldn't agree more. To be perfectly candid, I gravitate to the "laissez-faire" mode of behavior in most things personal and professional. I continually have to remind myself that moralizing and self-righteousness are best left to politicians and priests. Yet on the subject of business ethics and practice, it seems to me that what we are missing is some of that old time religion.

A more-than-subtle behavioral shift has taken place in the Nineties. It seems as though lack of discipline, failure to follow through and unwillingness to be held accountable for our actions and deeds now define the admired if not desired state. How else to explain the actions of authorities who permitted four high school students, charged with raping a teenage girl, to play in the big game. After all, they had not been indicted and as the school principal noted, " we needed them." How else to confront the reprehensible behavior of many of today's pampered and over-paid sports stars. From assaulting coaches, to dissing the fan with metaphorical middle finger held high, to fathering out-of-wedlock children with consummate ease and pride, it is the sports jocks who are now setting the bar on what is socially acceptable.

It's No Better in the Business World

It may have started with the loss of corporate loyalty on the part of the employee who was merely responding to the lack of loyalty exhibited by the company. Bottom line, nobody is loyal to anybody else and there goes the neighborhood. Failure to commit or be held responsible is now accepted practice. Leaders don't lead and managers don't manage. Who has the time? And why battle for standards when neither the superior nor the subordinate see any value in what are now often perceived as old-fashioned relics of a previous business age when quality was an admirable thing and the customer was always right.

The loss of virtue in business manifests itself in a million minor ways each day. No longer is there a firm commitment to the agreed-upon delivery date. Tradesmen and service sector types don't show up at the appointed time. Cost estimates are exceeded as if the original quote was nothing more than play dough to be molded and manipulated as the job progresses. Meeting dates and times, and often the meetings themselves, are forgotten. In the consulting world, for example, seniors are promised but juniors, with newly minted MBA certificates pinned to sleeve, are delivered to do the work. Over-worked and under-staffed departments provide the bare minimum in their rush to deliver the product or project on time. Forget about the value-added or the fresh perspective. Those are luxuries to be transacted only when the client or customer complains loudly enough. And let's not forget the quick-kill mentality sired by our brethren in the dot.com world. I got mine. Better get yours. Quickly now! Let's raise another glass to immediate gratification, to flash over substance, to the belief that the consumer legions, we the great unwashed, cannot tell the difference between a sow's ear and a silk purse.

The Answer Lies in Confrontation

There are myriad reasons for the malaise. Failure to invest in training; failure by management to articulate a desirable culture and lead the charge for its assimilation within the ranks; a general loss of commonweal by society at large, as is evidenced by the recent strength of the "put out" class, those perpetually angry, primarily white males, ear glued to talk radio and each carrying a chip-on-the-shoulder the size of an imagined crucifix. Affirmative action excesses and corporate welfare abuses have fueled the flames. Who knows from whence the Gen X types are getting their business ethics training, if they get it at all. And when was the last time we really forced ourselves to apply a little muscular action in the cerebral discipline department. Spell Check anyone?

The Milwaukee correspondent got it right. It is about consequences. "Every bit of progress in our lives came from people who stood up, took risks, had values and were personally accountable. It starts there," she writes. For those who aspire to lead or who are placed in a position where leadership goes with the job, don't be scared to demand accountability. Show responsibility yourselves. There is a naturally occurring osmotic process by which others absorb it from you like blotting paper. Ultimately the obligation is yours to revisit the practices and beliefs that still define civilized business practice and not let today's encroaching shallowness become the norm.

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