Situational Ethics Airplane food, military intelligence, giant gnomes, move over, make way for a new oxymoron.
Recently Bruce Nussbaum, an assistant managing editor at Business Week, triggered a small earthquake in the communication community by asking four substantial firms to compete for a big project without compensation. Whatever their reason, three of the firms accepted the challenge even though the written standards of their industry’s largest professional association speak against such practices.
The issue is not with Mr. Nussbaum. Business Week had every right to ask for what they wanted. From Oliver Twist asking for “more,” to Kennedy asking “why not,” everyone is entitled to ask.
The rumble, registered on the industry’s Richter scale, was caused by the ease with which acknowledged standards were buried by the rubble of rationalization. One moment they were fellows, peers standing shoulder to shoulder. The next moment it was everyone for themselves.
Looking Backwards Several years ago four other design firms were asked to compete without compensation for a significant project proposed by one of the “baby bells.” All four Chicago firms independently and respectfully declined to compete. When asked why by the potential client, the firms said they had an obligation to their profession and to themselves to live up to standards of performance and ethical practices as stated by the American Institute of Graphic Arts, of which all were members.
The baby bell VP, realizing his dilemma, reissued a detailed RFP. It asked for visual treatments to be submitted without loss of ownership — but this time compensation was included. All accepted the challenge.
Blame? We have no stinkin’ blame! In a world where the greatest motivator is punishment in the form of jail, being socially ostracized, or worse — ignored professionally, many will choose the gray area of situational ethics by claiming nolo contendere. Choosing the “lesser of two evils,” feigning ignorance after the fact, or “the devil made me do it” are all excuses that say ‘I broke my promise but it wasn’t my fault.’
Let us take the threat of punishment or loss of remuneration out of the equation and think about honor. The agreements we make are never really with someone else, but with ourselves. That is why when individuals, circumstances or rationalizations provide us with an escape from our promises, we should never feel as though we’ve recieved a pardon from the Governor. We should make agreements carefully and they should reflect our character and our willingness to respect our own integrity.
Organizations, institutions, and corporations are in the business of making and keeping promises with their customers, clients, suppliers, neighbors, employees and for some, their shareholders. These agreements, when kept and affirmed over and over again, define a relationship. They define a brand.
Far from just visual continuity, a brand consists of shared interactions. It is doing what we said we would do that binds constituents to brands. Every time a claim is acknowledged, a promise delivered or a discrepancy resolved the brand is sustained. These fulfilled promises are the cords that hold brand relationships together when they are tested by circumstances. Customers in all forms will come to appreciate that keeping promises benefits us as well as them.
The partners of Essex Two have over 50 years of experience helping organizations recognize and appreciate the complex and interdependent elements of those relationships that define the nature and character of brands. Visit the Essex Two website for case studies that demonstrate our ability to stimulate the success of our clients.
Worth your time: The Four Agreements: A Practical Guide to Personal Freedom by Don Miguel Ruiz is a short book, less than 140 pages, and probably not for everyone. The agreements Ruiz describes are simple, but not easy. Success is far from guaranteed. The author promises that adherence to these four particular agreements can change your life, in this world and the next.
Special Note: In the July/August issue of STEP Inside Design magazine, an industry trade publication, Joseph and Nancy Essex are featured in an article about couples working together, blending their personal and professional lives.
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