The winter holiday season gives us the opportunity to reflect. During this short respite from the day to day battles of doing business, it’s good that we can gain some perspective on our business and our lives. Often we see things in a different light just by stopping our daily activity for a short period of time.

Several traditional Christmas movies encourage reflection on how we conduct ourselves by illustrating an underlying moral lesson in a fictitious way. “A Christmas Carol” is probably the strongest example of this. Scrooge’s obsession with his career and business has forced him to make sacrifices in his personal life. Over the years, this resulted in him becoming bitter and miserable. “It’s a Wonderful Life” also exposes obsessive greed and the pain it can cause.

Movies, of course, take things to extremes to make a point, but I believe that there is some truth in what they portray.  Practices that seem to be good for business, can adversely affect everyone involved if they’re not tempered with honesty and the concern for the interests of others.

It’s not difficult to see how ruthless business practices can develop. By nature, business is competitive. In almost every transaction, what maximizes the interest of one business is costly to the other parties involved in the transaction. Some examples are:

  • The more money one company gets for its goods and services, the more it costs the customer.
  • The less a company pays for goods and services, the less money its suppliers get.
  • The less a company pays its employees, the harder it is for them to make a living.

Although this seems painfully obvious on the surface, we know there are limitations. Potential associates will simply go elsewhere when a business becomes unreasonable.

In order to work around this situation, ruthless business people will look for ways to gain an advantage by bending or breaking the rules. In both of our movie examples, the culprits found an underhanded way to force their associates or competitors to accept their terms. Hopefully, most of us don’t resort to such measures in our business practices but the temptation to better ourselves at the expense of others may lure us in more subtle ways.

I live in the suburbs of New York and much of my experience has been as a project manager for architectural woodworking firms that work on projects in New York City and the Hamptons. This is a fast-paced, unforgiving work environment where complex, evolving projects inevitably lead to mistakes. It is often not easy for the client, contractor, or architect to discern who caused the mistake.

One of the most fundamental lessons for a project manager in this situation is to “cover your butt”, meaning to document every verbal agreement or transaction with a follow-up email or letter. The reason is that when something in the project goes wrong, you’ll be able to prove that you did everything right. It’s become a well-known fact that if someone involved in the project makes a mistake, he’ll be looking for someone else to blame. So the practice of “covering your butt” makes sense. What’s disheartening is the willingness of people to lie and cause trouble for someone else when they know that they’re at fault.

The tangible benefits of passing the blame to someone else are immediate and obvious, as long as the accuser gets away with it. The accuser’s company is not held responsible for fixing the problem; the accuser is praised for his aggressive actions.

What’s not immediately obvious is the long term effects of this behavior. The culture that has developed is one of rewarding the most aggressive accuser, not the most competent manager. It’s an accepted fact in this particular business environment that people will lie to protect their own interests. If someone immediately accepts responsibility for their mistakes, they seem naïve and gain a reputation as an easy target.

Working within this culture always disturbed me, partly because this way of doing business doesn’t end there. Once a person becomes accustomed to lying and unjustly causing trouble for someone else in one situation, it becomes that much easier to do the same in other situations. It becomes their way of doing business and, as a result, a way of life.

The cost of this way of life affects the perpetrator as well as the victim. Once a person goes down that road, they lose their integrity and with it, their ability to choose to do the right thing. Like a cancer, their dishonesty becomes an integral part of their lives.

An inevitable consequence of this practice is when a dishonest person calls upon someone else in the company to join him in a dishonest act. I’ve had this happen to me more than once. In one situation, I was fired as a result of non-compliance with an underhanded scheme- not officially, of course.

On the other side of the fence, I’ve been part of a company that has prospered in this same business culture by being honest. If they made a mistake, they would correct it. Obviously, this practice cost the company money and caused them to struggle at times. But instead of accusing others for the error, they figured out ways to avoid the same type of mistake in the future. In the long run, they’ve grown and prospered, and that’s unusual for a woodworking company on Long Island.

To my knowledge, this business culture is not pervasive throughout the woodworking industry. In fact, my feeling is that the woodworking industry is, in general, less prone to this kind of practice than a lot of other industries. Still, we need to be on our guard and take a stand against dishonesty, even when it seems like a small thing.