Business ethics

Strong business ethics is vital to ensure a successful long-term career. One single thing that you can do that will make you stand out in life and in business is to cultivate very strong fundamental values and make it define who you are.

In practice, strong business ethics is not a common trait in employees, as you may have noticed yourself. If ethics were common we would not need so many laws and enforcement agencies. We could simply expect employees to do what is right. This, however, gives you a competitive advantage. In business, strong fundamental values could include many things but the underlying value is integrity at all times. Integrity must guide all dealings with internal and external stakeholders.

More important than integrity is the image of having integrity. It is a halo which can protect you from accusations. It takes years to develop this halo but it can be lost in one act, lasting just one second.

To cultivate strong business ethics, one needs to acquire or strengthen several business values that are vital for anyone who would like to succeed as a professional and as a leader.

Guide to business ethics

Be ethical regardless of the consequences in dealing with stakeholders of an organisation.

Do what is the best for the company. Sometimes it can mean doing what is the best for the client, if you work on projects for specific clients, such as in management consulting. Doing what is best for the company sometimes means forgoing immediate profits for the company, and even upsetting your co-workers.

  • Take pride in your work at all times.
  • Do your best work at all times.
  • Never say anything negative about someone behind that person’s back. If you have issues with someone, approach them directly.
  • Do not gossip or spread rumours. Do not take part in gossiping. Rumours have many untruths to them and you do not want to damage anyone’s reputation.
  • Be professional at all times.
  • If you promise something – deliver it as promised, but when needed, use opportunities to renegotiate the deadline.
  • Do as you advise others to do.
  • Respect your time and that of others.
  • Promote justice. Give people credit for their work and never accept credit for work done by somebody else.
  • Stand up for what you believe in. If you see wrongdoing, especially the kind that can be damaging to a company’s reputation or performance, do whatever you can to change it and refuse to be a part of it.
  • And last, but most importantly, remember that family and the people you love always come first. This does not mean that one can miss a deadline if there is a birthday coming up. In such situations you will have to negotiate with both parties and use your best judgment. What it does mean is that, in all your decisions, you need to keep your family’s interests as a highest priority. For instance, you cannot neglect your husband, wife or children for a few years while you are building your career. This will cause irreparable damage to your life. You have to incorporate their interests now into your schedule.


Ethics vs. Personal Commitments

Take care of yourself. Always remember that if you work yourself to the point that you will get ill, regardless of how outstanding your performance was, you will be replaced. Your employer and management may feel very sad that you are leaving, and may even have to hire two people to do your job, but they will replace you and in time forget about you.

Therefore, always remember to put your health and your family first. Those are the real assets of your life, not your title and the corner office. If you cannot reconcile the needs of your family with those of your career, then you need to think long and hard, and possibly walk away from your career.

Do not go against your values to accommodate behaviour which is not ethical.

The above points on business ethics were probably just a reminder, as they are intuitive. As you go forward, you can incorporate other guidelines that you feel are important. However, it is important to make sure that your values are not negotiable. That is why we call them values. As people often say; if you don’t have values – you don’t have anything. Values and moral principles only count when they are tested. Everyone has them unless they are put to the test. Then only a few truly have them.

Strong values will always make you stand out and are vital for your long-term success and happiness in all areas of your life.

Dress Code for Professional Women

A pair of circular-head court shoes / pumps in...

Image via Wikipedia

Let’s briefly forget about business casual and business professional and do a little test. I want you to do this exercise the next time you go out of the office and see people sitting outside on their lunch break. Try to guess what type of person they are.

  • Who looks reliable?
  • Who appears super-focused on their careers?
  • Who looks like a loner?
  • Who looks like the prima-donna?
  • Who looks like the popular person?
  • Who looks like management material?

ou do not know these people so how can you arrive at an opinion? You may have overheard some of them speaking but that will apply for just a few. Your opinion was based on the following:

  • You looked at their dressing (business casual, business professional or something else)
  • You looked at their posture, stance and behaviour
  • You looked at their facial expressions
  • And you took all these things and compared them against your own perceptions

That’s pretty much how humans work. How many times have you said to yourself “This person does not look serious or reliable? I should stay away from them.

This is why your dressing is such a powerful indicator. Your dressing and posture quickly and effectively create an impression of you.

Business Casual or Business Professional?

Let’s start with women and some observations about how women should dress. This is not meant to be an exhaustive list. Again, this is a comparison between wanting to dress business casual or business professional and how to do it. It is meant to highlight some principles for professional dressing.

Your dressing is part of the brand of the company. Some companies expect all the employees to dress in a certain way. Like IBM did for many years. So while you need to be comfortable, remember not to damage the brand equity of the business. If your firm insists on business professional (suits), then wear a comfortable suit. Don’t come to work in sandals and jeans.

Even when there are options for dressing it is always wise to dress business professional. If it is acceptable, wear a full suit. If full suits are not worn, then wear just the suit skirt/pants and a professional shirt. Remember in the test earlier, you need to meet people’s expectations of a reliable and professional person. This should not change between seasons.

Open shoes have become popular is some offices. Women have started wearing open shoes with their suits etc. This is probably not a good idea and conveys a casual image. Dress appropriately and wear covered shoes. Building a business casual look with your shoes can damage an otherwise good outfit.

Business professional is always recommended when it comes to necklines (not too deep) and skirt-lengths (on or slightly below the knee)

Your handbag is not an accessory. Some days it may be fine to take a small handbag to work but as a professional, your handbag should be functional. It is there to carry out a job and you should make sure it is designed for this. Stay away from flashy handbags that draw attention away from you as a professional.

Your mobile phone, Blackberry or iPhone is also not an accessory. Again it is wise to stay away from jewel encrusted phones, Hello Kitty ringtones and bright colours. If you are not sure, choose a style which conveys a neutral image.

Bright or body fitting tops under your suit jacket are not recommended. However a bright pink neck scarf on a white shirt may work.

Boots are generally not advised. I cannot think of a single situation where this will work accept possibly in harsh winters. If you must wear boots, wear something stylish but neutral. No fir trimmings, bells or pictures on your boots.

Everything you own should be seen as an extension of your dressing. These include pens, notebooks, accessories etc. They all need to be conservative and professional.

High heels are fine provided they are elegant, professional, and not shiny and have covered toes.

Fitted suits are just as good as off-the-rack suits. It is really your choice. If you go the fitted-suit route ensure they look sleek, elegant and not too sexy. You need to balance professionalism with your personal preference.

Casual Fridays are unusual days. It says to me that for 4 days of the week we are struggling to adjust to a culture we do not like, and to make up for the four days, we can wear anything we would like on a Friday. If you accept a company and its values for what they are, and do not see this as just a “job to pay the bills”, then the idea of casual Fridays make no sense. If you are forced to dress down on Fridays, then wear the most conservative clothing you can.

While you are an extension of your company and its brand you can look elegant, stylish and beautiful. Essentially you can vary your cut, colours, texture etc to achieve different looks which are all business professional.

In general, you need to dress for the image you want to project and career you want to have. When you select your clothing in the morning keep this front and centre in your thinking.

Building yourself

When building yourself, you need to eliminate non-necessities from your life and give 100% effort to necessities. A necessity is defined as something absolutely essential to helping you meet your objectives. You also must learn to identify activities that directly contribute to building yourself and activities that are “noise” that you have to go through.

Examples of activities that are noise include laundry, cleaning, driving, and shopping and so on. It refers to anything that does not improve your tomorrow and does not improve your value as an individual, as a professional, as a partner, as a parent or as a friend, but have to be done anyway.

Individual circumstances, priorities, goals and dreams will affect which activities are “noise” and which “build your value”. So you need to use common sense and personal judgment. Spending time with your partner during shopping may be the only time you spend together, so this is a necessity. Notice in this shopping example it’s not just what you do that determines if something is a necessity, it is also important to determine why you do it.

Ask yourself

What do you need to be successful in your business career training?

Do you have all the tools and skills to succeed?

Do you have sufficient time to succeed in your career?

If not, can you create more time for building yourself? In other words, which activities are “noise” and can be eliminated or delegated to others? Are your social activities preventing you from reaching your goal?

What needs to change to achieve your goals?

Do you have the courage, conviction and diligence to make the change?

Using the Answers

These are all good questions! Numerous people go through these questions when considering their goals and inspirations. Many of those people are not willing to make the investment of time, effort and trade-offs to get the result they want. They consciously choose to settle for an average or below average life. However, some remarkable people find the courage to face the challenges and find a way to succeed. And so can you.

This is easier than many people think, but only once you develop a mindset of focusing on what is needed for your future success, focusing on what is needed to have a better tomorrow and eliminating non-necessities which we call “noise”.

You should continue setting more challenging goals for yourself and keep building yourself into the person you were born to be. Along the way, though, don’t forget to enjoy the ride.

What do you want to be known for?

You are a brand. What kind of brand are you?

When people look at you, think about you, or work with you, they inadvertently often distil you down to a catch-phrase. You may have heard the following similar phrases in the office:

“Speak to Paul, he’s the numbers guy and can help you”

If you have any trouble, Dianne understands the marketing side best”

“If we’re going to make this client pitch tomorrow, we need Angelica involved. No one can pull it off like her and certainly not in the time we have”

For these catch-phrases to mean something they cannot be once-off references. If Paul is generally the person people go to when it comes to finance problems, if Paul positions himself as a finance specialist, if he is recognised as the finance specialist, then that is what Paul is known for. Whether he likes it or not, Paul’s actions have resulted in his brand choosing him.

Meet Diane in Sales

What you are known for within the office can be flattering or unflattering and intentional or unintentional. For example Diane may think of herself as an upcoming sales star, but the perception around the office is that she tries too hard in sales meetings and flirts with customers.

Diane may think this is all part of making sales, and feels her colleagues understand this. They may very well introduce her as a sales star when she is within earshot, but it’s what’s said when she is not around what counts. And when she is not around she’s known as the one who flirts to land a sale. This is an example of an unflattering image. Again, Diane may be asking herself, “How do I choose my brand?” However, her behaviour and choices resulted in a brand image she may not like.

Meet Preston In Health Care

Preston has been doing the same job of loading data at a hospital for years. Yet there should be no doubt, he is a stellar performer. As a business analyst he was far more interested in the operations side, but due to staff cuts and data problems he was asked to fix this problem. He did a great job, probably too good a job. His superiors kept him in this role and even the CEO, John Hennessey, mentioned his work in the quarterly report to employees. Unfortunately for Preston he is nothing more than a data jockey. It makes him unhappy and despite his efforts to break out of this role, he feels stuck. This is an example of an unintentional image. Its flattering, but not where Preston wants to be. Preston never wanted to be known as a data jockey but circumstances have led to this. Despite Preston’s dreams of moving into another role, he has been boxed into being known as a data jockey.

Is your career choosing you?

If what you currently known for is not what you want to be known for, what should you do?

  • Keep a record, over a month, of the work you are asked to do, review and/or advise upon. Make a list of the type of meetings you are invited to and the emails you receive.
  • Record the jokes people make about you (“Oh, Ria is not free on week nights. She is the super hero guardian of our data servers”). Lots of truths are conveyed as a joke.
  • When you offer co-workers any help, record the type of help they request. They usually jump to the one thing they believe you are best at.
  • Track both technical and non-technical things. Do people view you as trustworthy, honest, reliable, respectful etc.

Once you have this information, you can build a portrait of yourself. Take a clean sheet of paper and draw two columns. One is labeled “technical” and the other is labeled “non-technical”. Be sure to use only half of each column. You will need the second half later.

On one side of a page write down all the technical things that were linked to you and on the other write down all the non-technical things. Be brutally honest with yourself.

Look at the list. Is this who you thought you were? How do you feel about this? Are you happy? Do you feel proud?

It is okay and normal to be surprised at your co-workers perception of you. Especially if this is the first time you have done the exercise. All is not lost. This difference in perception is normal and happens in everyone’s career at some point. Usually it happens more than once. Take a deep breath and go make yourself some tea or coffee.

Once you have your coffee or tea, let’s do another exercise. On the same sheet of paper, on the half which is blank, write down the technical and non-technical things for which you want to be known for. Be careful when you do this. Focus on one or two things. Like any good brand you cannot be known for everything or too many things. That is not possible. A classic mistake is to focus on the technical skills only. In business, things like values and honesty are usually very important. Make sure you pay proper attention to these. Once you have this list, save it and come back to it in a day or two. This gives you time to think about the list and ensure it is complete in your mind.

Now compare this list to the list with your colleague’s perceptions. Is there is a big difference? In what way is there a difference? Write these down as well. Now think about your typical work week. How can you do things differently, or do new things to show a change in your behaviour. You cannot tell people you have changed, you need to show them.

When you get into the office, you need to keep the new list at the back of your mind and consciously think about the image you are conveying. If you do things correctly you will notice a change in your colleagues’ behaviour. In fact, you will feel a difference in your own behaviour because you are changing.

In about 3-4 months repeat this exercise and see if there are any changes in your co-workers perceptions. Remember, perceptions take time to change so don’t be disheartened if it takes too long. The important thing is to be conscious of your image and actively manage it.

Over time, co-workers will notice you are a different person. At this point you may want to actively enage your manager about a new role. Show him or her a summary of your analyses and explain why it is ineffective using your skills. Remember, you need to show why both the company and you will benefit from the change in roles.

It is a misconception that this “boxing-in” of what you are know for happens to weaker employees. Even the best performers can be stuck in a career loop. It requires self-awareness to identify this and build a way out. These steps will definitely help you.

How do I find a mentor?

One of the most important things you should do, at any stage of your career, is to find a mentor. Without a mentor, your climb up your career ladder may be a bit shaky, or you may even fall off.

Some companies already have mentorship programmes in place. Once you join, the company assigns a mentor to you. This mentor’s role is to help you develop yourself professionally. Assigned mentors are good but usually not great.

Since assigned mentors must carry out this role, they usually lack passion, are over-burdened and simply go through the motions. Therefore it is important that when you join and have the option of having a mentor, you should try to have some influence in the process.

If you are assigned a mentor who is not very helpful, work with them, but try to find yourself another informal mentor. There is no reason you cannot have more than one mentor.

When you are new, you are not aware of all the rules and processes, therefore having two mentors allows you to have checks and balances in place. Two mentors serve as a healthy sounding board.

How do you choose a mentor?

First, as much as you need to select a mentor, he or she also needs to select you.

Avoid mentors co-workers recommend as:


“John has been here for 30 years and knows this business inside and out”, or

“Shirley is easy to work with and people like her”.

People who are friendly sometimes try to be “liked” too much, and at the expense of providing good advice. Good advice is not always popular or well received and they may be unwilling to do this.

Usually it is a subconscious style and they don’t even know it is happening. Either way, you do not benefit. You want a mentor who has demonstrated real success in the business, is respected for those skills and will push you to reach your potential rather than make you feel good about yourself.

Do not confuse a mentor and a friend. Friends in the office are the nice people who show you around and go for coffee with you. Mentors push you to be your best.

Look for a mentor who knows how to succeed and someone who wants you to succeed. If you are mentored by someone who took 8 years to be promoted, the odds are they do not know how to progress, or worse, they think 8 years in one position is normal. That will just slow you down. You need to find someone who is open-minded and if you progress faster than they did, they are fine with this. They need to want to see you succeed.

Find a mentor who does not have a big ego. Some mentors like  the role since it implies they are guiding junior employees. These are not mentors. They are employees who seek to feel important by working with junior people.

It is best to find a mentor who is not involved in your business unit. Your mentor must not be involved with you on a day-to-day basis. They must be able to offer a fresh perspective and this is not possible if they work with you on a daily basis.

Your mentor is not your champion. Do not expect them to come out and publicly support you or champion you. That person is called your “champion” or your “sponsor”. Your mentor guides you to help you achieve your potential.

Do not pick mentors based on their so-called “political” networks in the business. Whether you like it or not, you are too new to the business to understand the “in-crowd” nor can you trust a co-workers judgement on this. Remember that political “parties” come and go, even in business. It is better to operate outside this circle.

Your mentor is not someone you speak to daily, weekly or even monthly. At best you may speak monthly but it’s usually less frequent. A good mentor is not going to get involved in the details, and you should not expect them to. They are helping you plan the arc of your life and career. An arc is developed over many months and usually years. They want to discuss your plans and ideas, and strategy to achieve your goals.

Things about which you should be extra careful

“How do I do that?” is probably the sentence that annoys mentors more than anything else, especially if it is the standard response you have to their advice. Mentors do not like getting into the operating detail. They do not have the time and do not have access to all the information you know to answer this question correctly. Moreover, having to answer this question tells the mentor you are likely not worth their time.

Mentors will provide guidance and ideas. It is your job to find a way to execute this advice. If a mentor tells you “it is important for you to build a good relationship with finance director”, it will really annoy your mentor if you will ask “How?”.

Your mentor is not there to hold your hand. If you want a good mentor, make sure you are at the state where you are capable of using the knowledge and guidance you receive. Simply having a good mentor is not enough. You have to be a great mentee.

When your mentor outlines an idea, it is your job to figure out how to make it happen or at least present your high level thoughts.

Demonstrate respect and courtesy to your mentor at all times. Show your appreciation. They are not paid to do this, it takes away their time and they are making an investment where the payback is not at all clear. Show that you are actively using their advice. Make them proud of you. Validate their decision to help you.

Picking a mentor post-crises

If you want to be really successful then it is very important you find a good  mentor or two.

In my experience, don’t be hasty to pick one as soon as you start. Take a few months to find one. In fact, wait until after you have been through a small crisis at the office. When there is a problem then the internal power structure of an organisation shows itself and you can quickly see how and who makes decisions. You need this to understand how the company works and the guidance you specifically need.

Developing a career track

A career track is important to develop. When I join a company, like everyone else I am very excited and prepared to focus on building myself to move ahead. I think long and hard about my career track. Both my employer and I need to benefit from the relationship.

However, before I can start discussing my planned career track with my boss, I need to show my employer that I am excellent in my current position and due to the excellence in my current position I have permission to start thinking about and planning my career.

Jane’s Career Track

Let me give you an example. Jane is a 29 year old business analyst at a paper company. Jane is a public certified accountant and holds an MBA. She is bright, ambitious and well liked by her colleagues. Jane arrives at work promptly at 8:30am every day and leaves at 6:30pm. She is a great colleague and her co-workers like socialising with her. Jane has been an analyst for 6 months and is desperately trying to have a conversation with her manager, Karl, about moving ahead to the next level. Karl politely sidesteps these discussions and simply tells Jane she needs more experience. Jane is puzzled and keeps pressing the issue. She believes her career is on track to be Karl’s “lieutenant” in the department.

To Karl Jane is good at her work but not great. He still needs to check and sign-off all her work. She is not creative enough. While her work is good she is usually at her best when she knows what needs to happen and “disappears” for 1 to 2 weeks to complete the assignment.

To Karl Jane needs to have better attention to detail, she needs to be more creative and understand the business better. In Karl’s opinion, Jane does not act as if she is a senior business analyst and therefore does not yet have his permission to start transitioning her career to the next level. To Karl, she needs to focus on being better in her current role first. If anything,

Lessons for Jane

Jane should sit down with Karl and understand his expectations of her.

Jane must distinguish between explicit (“complete the businesses cases on each product launch, review the material for the management meeting etc”) and implicit expectations (“the team has been down recently so we hope to inject some confidence with your arrival, the analysts and marketers do not get along so I hope you can help us bridge that gap etc”).

Understand what is most important to Karl and the business.

The expectations must be clear to Jane, and where possible, be measurable and have milestones.

Jane should also discuss with Karl her expectations of working with Karl. What support, guidance, and feedback she needs.

They must agree to proper feedback meetings at regular intervals and after each major piece of work is completed. They should also agree to a performance discussion every 3 months.

This is important, Jane must determine at which point Karl will be open to discussing her career progression. It is important to note that not all companies have formal career paths, so it is not a bad idea to be proactive.

Once this meeting is over, it is best to transcribe the discussion and send an email to Karl for his records. Jane must keep the email friendly but specific. Many people forget discussions. Capturing key discussion points protects both Jane and Karl.

How should Jane use this discussion with Karl?

Over the first six months of her job Jane must be laser-like focused in ensuring she is meeting Karl’s agreed on expectations of her. Her objective now is not to focus on her distant career track, but to make sure she excels in current role. Jane must document her progress and where possible have tangible evidence of her successes.

Three months after the expectations discussion, she should arrange a discussion with Karl to discuss performance. Prior to such meeting it will be helpful if Jane summarizes her performance on a single piece of paper.

Jane’s objective in this meeting will be to determine if she is meeting or exceeding Karl’s expectations. She needs to gain clear and constructive feedback. Jane should probe for examples and areas of improvement. If this first feedback meeting will not go well, then Jane needs to buckle down and fix those problems.

If it will go well, Jane then needs to focus over the next 3 months on fixing any small development areas. In these next 3 months Jane must start acting as if she is at the next level. Now she can start thinking about her career track.

She should be careful not to overstep her authority, but must use every opportunity to show she is already at the next level. For example, if the next level requires liaising directly with clients, should that opportunity present itself, Jane should engage a client and build a good relationship for the company.

If Jane does this well, then in Karl’s mind she is exceeding expectations in her current role, shows ambition and accountability, and he will likely be open to discuss her career plans. Karl will himself start thinking about Jane’s career track. He will not want to lose a talented employee and may even initiate the discussion himself.

This is a more effective way to progress in a company. Ensure you have the implicit permission of your manager to start thinking about the next level of your career track, and start acting as if you are already at the next level. Yet before you can do this, you must over deliver in your current role. No one wants to promote an employee who cannot perform in their current role, to a more senior role.