Reputation and ethics ― shadow or substance

Reputation, ethics and actual value should go hand in hand. In the corporate world, success depends, among other things, on whether people are willing to buy or recommend your product, and this is usually driven by the perception that the company can be trusted and will deliver on promises made in advertising. The question arises, is this perception based on any real substance, or is it merely a shadow cast by an unjustified REPUTATION!!  

Where consumers have a choice between essentially similar products, their decision to buy is based on what the company is about, and this ultimately comes down whether the company name is associated with a core of ethics.  

Many fail to grasp the connection between reputation and ethics, as evidenced by the rise in reports of unethical behaviour and loss of credibility both at the individual and corporate level.

It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” (Warren Buffet)

I have heard so much in the past year about ‘reputation’ both in the media and from those who work in the corporate sector that I often wonder if ‘reputation’ has become a substitute for a resume or CV, or any real evidence of value. Those who claim to have a ‘reputation’ assume this can be leveraged regardless of whether there is any substance to their claims. Some even use ‘protecting reputation’ as justification for unethical behavior.  

It is tempting to get caught up with the perception and not the practice of ethical conduct, and to define reputation only by how you are perceived by others. If in fact you are ethical, is there really a need to speak of having a reputation? Surely your ethical conduct speaks volumes about you in the workplace without needing to utter a word about it!

The value of a company or organization is tied up not only in physical or financial capital, but in human capital ― individuals who interact to produce outcomes. It is the perceptions of these outcomes that drive reputation and therefore long-term success.

 “Ethics are frameworks for human conduct that relate to moral principle and attempt to distinguish right from wrong” (Miesing and Preble, 1985).

Reputation “is a perceptual representation of a company’s past actions and future prospects that describe the firm’s overall appeal to all of its key constituents when compared with other leading rivals” (C.J. Fombrun, 1996).

Beyond the workplace laws legislated by governments, each company or institution will develop a set of guidelines and policies about workplace conduct with the aim of building value, whether financial or social. Social value is measured in terms of trust; where there is trust, stakeholders are more likely to give the corporation the benefit of any doubt in the face of a crisis or controversy.

We’ll now look at what constitutes a good reputation in two essentially different industries.

Reputation in the Corporate Sector

At the corporate level, issues of reputation may be tied up with legal and ethical issues, but they are not always mutually exclusive, meaning not all that is legal is necessarily ethical. In some scenarios a legal solution may not be the most ethical one, and choosing an ethical solution over a legal solution may in fact pay dividends to a company’s reputation despite the cost in terms of real dollars.

In an ideal world, the pharmaceutical and medical device sectors should comprise individuals who spend the best years of their working life inspired by the prospect of improving human health, quality of life and longevity. However, these corporations are answerable to their share-holders, and their motivations are not entirely altruistic. For society to benefit, there has to be a balance between good science and good money. Where it becomes unstuck is when money is the primary goal, as evidenced by lawsuits, trials and fines related to unethical behavior.

The prevalence of unethical behavior and the betrayal of the public trust by the financial sector have recently dominated news headlines since the start of the Australian Banking Royal Commission. Initially, the concern of some politicians was that this investigation would “damage the banking sector’s reputation internationally”— until day after day of public testimony highlighted the egregious behavior of those under investigation. Some involved claimed they concealed relevant details of financial products in order to preserve their reputations!!

Clearly ethical conduct was side-stepped in the hope that ‘reputations’ would remain intact. Among other things, the lack of honesty and transparency by these institutions and the individuals who represent them, all in the name of reputation, highlights the gaping chasm between ethics and reputation in this sector.

This and other similar cases highlight the need to change unethical behavior that clearly impacts company reputation. Once a decision is made, whether conscious or sub-conscious, to compromise ethics in favor of financial gain, it sets in motion a domino effect that may be impossible to stop before it reaches the brink of disaster. People’s lives are ruined, and monetary settlements are merely a band-aid on the greater festering problem of greed and self-interest.

It takes moral courage and discipline at the leadership level to ensure that stakeholder trust is not compromised for financial gain, and recognize that the intangible and invaluable thing called ‘reputation’ is not just a shadow without any substance, but is firmly rooted in a core of ethics.

To quote another blogger on this topic, “A company’s commitment to ethics is the most effective means to preserve and protect the company’s reputation. Frankly, they go hand in hand and mutually reinforce each other.”

Reputation in Academia

Reputation in academia is highly dependent on ‘getting it right’ and not necessarily on ‘being right’. The motivation to do academic science tends to be a personal one, and the choice of fields may closely follow something the individual personally identifies with. In the current environment, academic reputation is primarily defined by the quality of publications and the ability to convince the scientific community of the veracity of their finding, and secondarily by the value of their work to the general public.

Recent concerns in the academic community on reproducibility and replication are perhaps the greatest threat to academic reputation, because it calls into question the intrinsic value of the research and threatens acceptance by their peers. I have written previously on the challenges of reproducible research and some steps that can be taken to ensure reproducibility.

In a recent published article, ~4700 individuals from varied backgrounds were asked to choose between two extremes about their expectations of scientists. Overwhelmingly they chose ‘boring but certain’ (i.e. very reproducible) over ‘exciting but uncertain’ (i.e. not very reproducible). Although respondents of this survey chose the ‘exciting’ researcher as the more creative and therefore more celebrated, they linked reputation and success to ethics and truth, and cared more that the scientist pursued certainty and reproducibility in their work.

The main message from this survey was that the pursuit of truth and ethical conduct in academia was more valuable to reputation than the research outcome itself.

Building a positive reputation

  • Learn to accept criticism gracefully. Anyone in a regular working environment, whether academic or corporate, will face this sooner or later. It is a mark of personal development to be honest with yourself, and consider whether there is room for improvement, rather than fire off a nasty response.
  • Before you act in any situation, stop and consider it from the other person’s point of view. How would you like to be treated if you were in their shoes?
  • Do not ignore emails from colleagues or collaborators or those below you in the career ladder. Respond in a timely manner, even if it’s a brief response to say I’ll get back to you on that. And if you say that, follow through. Few things foster mistrust more than someone who says they’ll do something but never get around to it.
  • For those in publishing, everything that you put your name to should be taken seriously, and carefully checked to ensure that you are willing to take responsibility for the published work. You should never agree to be an author or offer authorship to someone where contributions do not meet the ICMJE criteria for authorship.
  • Be open and transparent about conflicts of interest. Consider opting out if asked to review the work of a competitor, or provide advice on a product you stand to benefit financially from.
  • Maintain your integrity and be true to your values. It is easy to take shortcuts hoping no one will notice. Any level of misconduct will eventually catch-up with you and has been known to ruin careers. For more on integrity, see my recent article on integrity in science and why it matters.

Developing and maintaining a code of ethics and strictly adhering to it is central to a good reputation. As stated earlier, individuals collectively interact to produce outcomes that affect external stakeholders and reflect company image, whether corporate or academic. Building a reputation therefore must start with ethical conduct at the individual level.

At SugarApple Communications, our mission is to adhere to the highest ethical standards in the promotion of high quality research. Get in touch today and let’s talk.

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