Hillary Clinton used her private email account and server for State Department business. Did she break the law? No. Was she wrong? In her words, “It would have been better” if she had just used her private email address for only personal matters. But was she unethical?
Ah, that’s the question that both her supporters and critics will debate over the next few years as the next presidential election approaches.
If you’re a business owner, you’re used to this debate. Most of us don’t operate outside of the law. Sometimes we make wrong choices. Like Clinton, we sometimes make choices that would be considered unethical by some, yet perfectly appropriate by others. Yes, even you. In fact, you may have done five things this past month that could come under ethical scrutiny.
1. You snuck a few personal expenses through the business.
Just about every business owner I know does this. It’s never a lot and certainly not so much that would ever gain the scrutiny (or even the interest) of an IRS auditor. But business owners commonly take cash from the petty cash fund, charge gas for their personal vehicle on the business credit card, shave a few dollars off of the value of their inventory and even “forget” to invoice a few orders at the year end, instead deferring the revenue to next.
You can argue that it’s all immaterial, judgmental and defensible. And that you already pay plenty in taxes. It’s technically illegal, kind of wrong and a little unethical. But not so much. So you sleep pretty well at night.
2. You hired that person because you just liked him more.
He was qualified, but so was the other candidate. Except there was something about that other candidate that you couldn’t quite connect with. You’re no racist, but maybe the other candidate was of a different race, culture or gender and that affected your decision. Maybe he had a tattoo on his arm and you’ve never liked those. Maybe he mentioned that he likes to watch Fox News. Or maybe he mentioned that he’s a Dodgers fan and you’ve always loved the Giants.
The fact is that in hiring you’re always looking for the best qualified candidate. Then when you find a few that fit you tend to lean towards those people that you like more, the people that you find more similar to you and who you think will fit in better at your company. Is this discrimination? In a way, yes. Is it unethical? No. It’s something we all do all the time.
3. You shipped a product to a bigger customer ahead of a smaller one.
The smaller customer doesn’t order much from you and his order was placed before the big customer. And you know it’s just as important to him as it is to the big customer. So he deserves to receive his product first, right? Except that the big customer orders a lot of stuff from you every month and you don’t want to do anything to upset that relationship.
You follow the money. You pay more attention to the bigger guy. You potentially risk your relationship with the smaller customer to maintain a good one with the larger one. Is this the right thing to do? No. The right thing is to ship product to the smaller customer because he was first in line and all customers should be treated equally.
That’s a nice thought, but you and I both know that not all customers are equal. Is it unethical? No. This is just business.
4. You charged a customer a ton of money for only 15 minutes of work.
The customer’s kitchen sink was backed up and he was having a party that night and in a panic. You quoted a price that was literally five times the typical price you charge. He agreed. You came over to his house and were able to quickly unblock the pipe. It was a breeze. The customer was relieved and grateful and paid your exorbitant fee. And you took it.
Was this the right thing to do? Probably not. You could have charged him something more reasonable, and for all you know that customer may resent what you charged him and never use you again. But was it unethical? Of course not. You’re not running a charity.
5. You poached an employee from a friendly competitor.
Well, not exactly poached. You met her at a trade show and she dropped a lot of hints about how much she likes your company. She was experienced and capable. She didn’t have a non-compete or even an employment agreement. So you told her about an opportunity in your company. She came in and interviewed and you gave her the job. She would’ve left anyway. And the fact that she came over with more than a few notes and data about your competitor’s customers didn’t hurt either.
Was your competitor furious with you? Oh yes. Were you breaking the law? No. Was this unethical? No. It happens all the time.
See what I mean? I don’t care what your political leanings are, if you run a business you have to empathize, if even a little, with Hillary Clinton. Just like you, people will question her judgment and her ethics. But she didn’t break any laws. She made her decisions based on what she needed to do at the time, just like you do every day.
My dad always said, “If you’re going to run a business, make sure to have as few principles as possible -- but stick to them.” I agree with that. And I’m sure Clinton would too.
Related: Are Business Ethics at a Low Ebb?