Ethical Business Practices and Your Stomach

The Trouble With Business

I’m in an evolutionary stage with a few of my businesses, and I want to go over something that’s been on my mind as a result.

For many, the concept of ethics seems to fade away as soon as they enter the boardroom/cubicle/home office. “It’s just business,” is the prevailing excuse for doing things that they would not do in normal, non-business society. No need to worry, it’s a consequence-free environment so long as you play by the rules of the business world, which are very different from those everyone plays by the rest of the time.

I understand why this ethical segmentation takes place.

First, the main point of starting a business for most people is to make money. This is the be-all, end-all purpose behind starting such an enterprise, and therefore any cost is legit in order to make a profit.

Second, since specialization is at a peak, most people will never have to be the sole morally loose-sprocket in a given machine. Each and every employee is just a piece of a greater whole, and it’s easy to convince yourself that there is someone higher up who is assuming the moral burden of the decisions made.

Third, because everyone else seems to be making money in unscrupulous ways, it’s easier to convince yourself that cutting corners and short-shrifting your ethics won’t be so bad. How else can you compete?

Unfortunately, these points provide the justification, but not a solution to the problems that result from all the unethical business behavior out there.

What Can Be Done?

If you’re running a business, you likely have customers or clients, and the first step is simple: do not do anything to these people that you would not want done to you.

I’ll give you an example (one that started a bit of a debate on Twitter the other day): I hate pop-ups on websites. I simply can’t stand them. If a site has one, I’ll never visit again; they bug me that much. To me, pop-ups have all the noxious-charm of a TV commercial but with less content. The message I see is, “Your time is mine.”

Seth Godin would call this ‘interruption marketing,’ as opposed to the preferable ‘permission marketing.’

There is evidence that having a pop-up on your site can increase your newsletter subscription rate, ebook purchase rate, or whatever else you want to advertise. But is it worth it?

Why would I do something to my readers that I know annoys me? Am I better than them in some way that they should have to stomach it and I should not?

Of course not, so I don’t use pop-ups. Same with banner ads and text ads. This site is ad-free.

Why all this trouble? Why all these missed opportunities?

Because I doubt I would have the same enthusiasm for this project if I didn’t think I was building something the way it should be built. My ethics aren’t yours, of course, and everyone needs to figure out where their personal lines are drawn, but crossing those lines has consequences.


My enthusiasm, plus the goodwill of my non-annoyed readers, is a huge advantage gained by this method of running a business.

My readership numbers could probably be higher if I used every trick in the book, but my clickthrough and participation rates are off the charts because people are more likely to get involved if they don’t feel pressured and put-upon by their host.

I wanted interaction with my readers, and I get it. All I had to do was treat them the way I’d want to be treated.

I know, the Golden Rule is no big moral revelation, but for some reason it seems to be almost completely unknown in the business world. There are many strong professionals out there who aren’t living up to their potential because they ignore their personal ethics when on the job.

I used to wrestle with this, thinking it a weakness that I couldn’t stomach doing what needed to be done in order to maximize my numbers, but I’ve come to realize that letting my gut lead the way is what allows me to lead the lifestyle I do.

I can operate a handful of ventures at any given time without stressing out or feeling weighed down by them. In fact, I wake up excited every day, looking forward to what I get to do for work. My businesses bring value to me and my clients/customers/readers, and that brings me a great deal of satisfaction.

And you know what? The money follows.

If you’ve got a business or job that isn’t bringing you joy along with cash, you’re selling yourself short.

If you wouldn’t be comfortable telling your base all about every decision you make, every tactic you use, and every scheme you come up with, you’ve got a problem on your hands.

Avoid burnout and work to live, not just to make a living. Don’t sell out your base to make a buck, build a base that will gladly help you make money as you help them achieve their goals.

Live ethically to live happily.

Update: January 26, 2017

I’m still a big proponent of this idea. And I’ve extended it even further, actually, to everything in my life. I find that being open and truthful by default helps me avoid awkwardness and moral conflict. It also ensures decisions are a lot easier to make, because you don’t have to choose between what you think is the right thing, and what may be more profitable, but less aligned with your ideals.

It also doesn’t hurt to live a life that you don’t necessarily just put out there, but that you wouldn’t worry about everyone knowing about, should you get hacked or something. That’s been big on my list, too: be okay enough with everything I do and say so that if it all comes out someday, I’ll be able to stand behind how I lived.

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