At some stage in your business life you will be put in a situation where you have to make a conscious decision that really should make you feel uncomfortable. This decision will relate to your ethical stance on something in particular and if you cross that line, you will never be the same person again. This is an ethical crossroad and those who have experienced one will know exactly what I mean.

For me, this crossroad has manifested in many different ways over the years -

  • I've been offered cash to award a contract that I was managing for a client to a very non ethical supplier.
  • I could have taken equipment that no one in a business I was working for knew about because of poor record keeping.
  • I've had media companies offer me money to recommend them to my clients as opposed to recommending the right product or service for the customer.
  • I've been faced with the decision of whether I put money before the safety of my staff.
  • I've had company credit cards that could have easily been used and abused.

And I've been offered quite a few unusual things that I won't write about here, all of which once again crossed ethical lines. Of course ethical crossroads can cover a lot of ground, far more wide ranging than simply taking money. The outcome is the same, once you sell your soul, someone else owns it and you.

I've worked really hard to build my reputation, in fact I've spent over 30 years building it. It is my most prized possession and I have always done everything I can to protect it. For me these kind of ethical crossroads are easy to navigate, I would never do anything that could potentially come back to haunt me and ruin my reputation.

Most of us are never really clear about how we will handle a situation like that until we are confronted by it. Unfortunately or perhaps fortunately, I had a lot of ethical crossroads as a kid growing up. Most of the decisions I made back then were not as mature or perhaps honest as I would like. But I reached a point where I drew a line in the sand and decided that from that point on, I would have a very clear ethical framework to follow, and I've followed it for decades.

I'm not trying to be sanctimonious, or superior in any way. I simply knew that my life had to change or I would cascade into a deep dark pit and I most certainly didn't want that. As I grew into adulthood I would consider every possible scenario where my ethics and values could be challenged and I determined ahead of time how I would handle that situation.

I certainly have been confronted by many of these imagined scenarios and each time I was crystal clear on what I would do and what I wouldn't do. Perhaps I wouldn't have been quite so clear if I hadn't thought about them beforehand. An interesting thought.

My point here is simple. If you are in business at some stage you will reach an ethical crossroad. They can take many shapes and forms, but they all have the potential to ruin your reputation. Think about what that could look like now and ponder for a few minutes how you will handle this ethical challenge before you face it. Be prepared, know yourself and know what the right thing to do is.

Once you cross a line, it's much easier to keep crossing that line. And of course other ethical lines soon become blurred. And eventually you will get caught out - and your reputation tarnished if not ruined. It's very hard to recover from this, we've all seen the disgraced businessman, sportsman or politician. Imagine recovering from that?

And of course, let's not forget that famous Oprah quote, "Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody's going to know whether you did it or not". It's a very good philosophy for living, especially for business owners and entrepreneurs.