It became a hot topic the other day, although I’m having a difficult time understanding why. In last Wednesday’s baseball game between the New York Yankees and the Tampa Bay Rays, shortstop Derek Jeter was awarded first base because the umpire believed that he had been hit by a pitch; a misconception Jeter played up by grasping his arm and grimacing in pain. However, slow-motion replay revealed that the handle of the bat, and not Jeter’s arm, had made contact with the ball. In baseball, such calls are not reversed on video evidence, and play continued with Jeter on first base. The rule in baseball has always been that what the umpire believes happened is what happened… period.
Controversy the next day seemed to center around two questions: was this cheating, and is this the right thing to be teaching children? Within the context of baseball, and professional sports in general, these are both non-issues. No team sport has a rule that requires players to contradict an official’s ruling based on their personal knowledge of the play. To my knowledge, no baseball player has ever called himself “out” because he knew he had been tagged before touching base. While children should always be taught to “play fair”, no Little League coach tells his players that they should contradict a call made in their team’s favor. And as far as “acting” goes, every catcher is trained, regardless of age, to pull an outside pitch in with the hope of convincing the umpire that it was a strike.
By definition, if it doesn’t break a rule it isn’t cheating. That’s because baseball is a game, not a medieval morality play. It exists within its own standards and its own conventions. Professional baseball is also a business, and players are paid to win games as a team, not display their own ethical virtues.
While games can be business, business is not a game. Outside of illegal activities, there are no true rules… only ethics. And while rules provide clear, black and white guidance, ethics are far more mutable and situational in nature.
No one goes into a business pitch to suggest that another firm offers a better solution to a prospective client’s needs. No one expects a businessperson to be completely candid concerning their company’s weaknesses or the strengths of the competition. This isn’t called cheating, just being competitive. On the other hand, most of us would agree that an agent or consultant who makes recommendations based on what best benefits his or her own company, rather than the client, is being unethical.
In my own industry, advertising, the opportunity always exists for agencies to advise clients to spend their marketing budgets in ways that will optimize their own profitability. I would like to say that such ethical abuses do not exist, but sadly they do. No rules are broken and there is no instant replay to let the client know that the agency “got away with one” at their expense. It is, to my mind however, unethical.
Here’s an example. Earlier this year a potential client came to us with a concept for a new way of doing business in his industry, and a realistic source of capital with which to launch it. After researching the industry and looking critically at his business plan, we declined to pursue the account and advised him of what we considered to be fatal flaws in the concept. He took the questions we raised to trusted colleagues in his industry, and concluded that we were right. He came back to thank us for our counsel, and said that we were the only firm that he interviewed that offered him an honest opinion and refused to take his money. Were the others being unethical, or simply telling the prospect what he wanted to hear? There’s no way to tell.
In business and in life there are no rules to define what is “cheating” and what is not. Individually, and as organizations, we have to define our own moral compass and decide how closely we will adhere to its guidance. This ultimately defines who we are and determines what we will become. There may be no rules in business, but there is a principle that I’ve heard repeated innumerable times: “What comes around goes around.” Most of the time, it really does.
I’d be glad to hear other examples – positive or negative – about ethical behavior in business.
Executive Vice President- Creative Director & Copywriter
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