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Leadership > Company Culture

The Golden Rule Is Just as Good for Businesses as It Is for People

Businesses that "do unto others" are reaping the benefits.
The Golden Rule Is Just as Good for Businesses as It Is for People
Image credit: Caiaimage | Sam Edwards | Getty Images

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As children, we're taught to treat others as we want to be treated. But when money is involved, what can encourage us to follow the golden rule and run ethical businesses?

When asked, we say: Yes, of course we all deserve the same standards. When it comes to business, though, I think we've focused too much on cutthroat leaders who can get away with nearly anything -- as long as they're charismatic or innovative enough. The golden rule is a way of improving emotional intelligence and increasing an awareness of ethics in every interaction, but it's no match for the common figure of the rogue business genius.

Just consider how lenient we are with individuals who are forging new ground, especially in areas such as technology or finance. Take for example, the memoir-turned-movie "The Wolf of Wall Street." Even more extreme is the example of John McAfee, the founder of McAfee software. Prorofiled by Wired when he ran off to Belize to evade authorities, he'll be played by Johnny Depp in an upcoming feature film.

And when businesses are unethical? Uber remains on top of the ride-hailing game in spite of terrible PR during the past two years. And though the executives at Equifax who sold stock before revealing the data breach could face charges, by and large the team will face no legal repercussions. Equifax retains its monopoly on credit report information.

This all sets a bad precedent, and it can hold water for only so long before the dam breaks.

Related: 5 Reasons Leaders Behave Badly

The golden rule always has been my motto. It holds espeically true in the healthcare industry, where we can see the impact on patients and their families. As a COO, I must implement every decision in the context of both doing good (in accordance with the golden rule) and not simply doing well (for our bottom line). Mounting evidence suggests this is not just beneficial, but a growing necessity among consumers who won't stand for much less.

Here's how (and why) I think all businesses can adopt this concept productively.

Slow change through social intervention.

Companies are beginning to realize that treating people well is essential to a long-term business strategy in our digitally connected world. Social media was the first wake-up call for businesses that quietly operated under unethical or simply poor values. The change is slow, but we are moving from the stick to the carrot, as the saying goes. "The Wolf of Wall Street" would be a different story entirely if the company's employees had been armed with smartphones.

Before social media, advertising ruled. Wronged customers had two primary choices and little recourse otherwise: write a complaint letter or badmouth the company to friends, family, coworkers and anyone else who would listen. That usually was the extent of it. Social media, however, offers the opposite extreme. We now live in an era of information overload. It's enough to make some people wish for the simplicity of early times, while others feel a sigh of relief that their complaints can make a difference.

Of course, each industry and its regulatory bodies have set forth their own standards. The Better Business Bureau (BBB) was formed in 1912 -- well ahead of its time, really -- as a nonprofit organization that promoted honest advertising practices and resolved disputes between consumers and businesses. The BBB accepts complaints and serves as a mediator. Its truly revolutionary role, though, comes in the form of its business ratings. These scores consider the public's input, among other factors. Regulating agencies, on the other hand, keep a filter in place. A wall prevents people from seeing exactly what another consumer has said about a company or service. 

Related: The Holy Trinity of Business Growth: People, Process and Metrics

Social media removes the barriers between customers and corporations. We now can see comments, ratings and even photographic evidence of bad behavior not only online but in real time. (Those same tools can expose unfounded customer complaints, too). Treating customers poorly can have ripple effects. "United Breaks Guitars" is a viral, musical testament to poor customer service at United Airlines. It's amassed more than 17 million views on YouTube.

Clearly, that's the stick approach. But what about the carrot? And who leads the way? The list of innovative business leaders who have become major philanthropists includes Bill Gates, Richard Branson, Oprah Winfrey, Susan Alice Buffett, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg and others. 

Tangible benefits.

At first glance, the golden rule's financial impacts are simple. In fact, many companies include something along these lines in their values statements:

  • Treat your employees as you would want to be treated, and they will work harder and stay with you.
  • Treat your customers as you would want to be treated and they will come back again.

The golden rule provides guidance in hiring, too. Increasing numbers of employees want to work exclusively for organizations that have a positive impact on the world. As the millennial generation makes up an even larger proportion of workers in the coming years, companies will face mounting pressure to hold leaders and brands accountable -- to associates and consumers alike.

Related: Why Honesty and Integrity Really Do Matter

When we treat our associates, customers and the world well, we can maintain and build the loyalty needed to succeed in the long term. An unethical workplace also is a less productive one. According to another survey, almost 90 percent of workers who experienced incidents of unethical behavior while on the job stated they were personally affected. It distracted them from focusing on the task at hand. 

Moreover, an ethical business avoids the sunk costs and bad press that can come with resulting legal issues. Companies can achieve the golden rule in part through transparency -- a factor that equates to employee happiness, health, productivity and ultimately, profit.

A reminder of ethics.

How, then, to make sure our businesses are on the right track? We can use the golden rule as a framework for all our decisions. When we stop to consider the other person, we practice empathy -- and that's strongly tied to making ethical choices. Psychology Today contributor Mark B. Baer points us to several Harvard University studies and reports that attempt to understand the complex emotional connections between empathy and decisions. Those same sources uncover how fear and advertising can derail empathy.

Related: The 6-Step Method for Managing Any Ethical Dilemma

In the healthcare field, business decisions directly impact the quality of life for patients and their families. But businesses must turn a profit to continue, and profits can drive companies to cut corners and act badly. Applying the golden rule activates our entire suite of ethical and emotional decision-making tools. This changes our day-to-day relationship with employees and clients as well as how we perceive the long view when weighing major, direction-setting alternatives.

We owe it to our businesses and ourselves to keep the golden rule in mind at all times. Our associates, customers, bottom line and collective conscience will reap the benefits in due time. 

Related: Are You In It for 5 Years or 50? The Trust You Earn Will Determine How Long Your Business Lasts.