Everyone believes in being truthful in business. Some are just more truthful than others

* * *

I play by the rules, but I'll bend them to my

company's advantage whenever I can. 52%

I tell the whole truth, all the time. 46

All's fair in love and business, as long as

you don't get caught. 2

Views of ethics vary significantly with age throughout the poll. For instance, among those under the age of 35, 34% tell the truth all the time, compared with 54% of those over 45. And 62% of those under 35 bend the rules, compared with 46% of those over 45. Honesty appears to be a function of a company's age as well. Thirty percent of those with companies less than a year old tell the whole truth, compared with 49% of those with companies 10 years old or more. Seventy percent of the younger companies bend the rules or say, "All's fair," whereas 51% of the older ones do. Are ethics luxuries that start-ups can't afford? "Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do to get started," notes one respondent, "as long as you improve your ways later on." But others disagree, saying that view might be shortsighted. "Things are really stacked against start-ups, so this could rationalize shortcuts," observes another reader. "But in the long run, shortcuts are the seeds of destruction."

Percentage of respondents who would get around the intent of a law pertaining to each of the following, if they could do so without violating the letter of that law

The IRS 57%

Your competitors 50

Your health-insurance company 38

The Environmental Protection

Agency 31

Your bank(s) 26

Your suppliers 18

Your employees 9

Your customers 7

There's a definite "us versus them" trend in evidence. You won't compromise relationships with those you consider to be on your side, such as employees and customers. But with groups you deem out to get you, like competitors and insurance companies, you're more likely to bend the rules. In particular, many would have no qualms about stiffing the IRS. "The government doesn't deserve our respect; our customers do." Others also reacted to the spate of "protection" laws and regulations businesses need to contend with, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act and Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations. To some, "these laws that are designed to protect actually do harm." Regarding suppliers and banks, some say sidestepping regulations isn't so much rule bending as shrewd business, which is "not necessarily unethical." Slightly less than a third of you feel it's OK to fight fire with fire. For the most part, you believe you should define your own ethics rather than let others define them for you. Others feel they have no choice but to retaliate when someone treats them unethically. "Good ethics benefit everyone when most people practice them. But most don't, and I feel forced to participate in unfair and somewhat unethical practices in order to stay afloat and compete."

Which of the following would you consider to be an acceptable business practice?

Paying suppliers net 60 days but expectingnet 30 on your accounts receivable 43%

Pretending your company has divisions to makeit look bigger to clients and suppliers 37

Stealing clients from your current employerwhen you break off on your own 35

Pirating software 25

Getting around privacy rights in job interviews 23

Writing a check for which you know you haveinsufficient funds, hoping it will be goodby the time it's cashed 23

Using a copier machine on a 30-day trial basiswithout intending to purchase it 17

Persuading dealers to buy more product thanyou think they need 16

Promising clients services you don't currentlyprovide, or products you don't currentlyproduce, and are not positive you can deliver 8

Although most people contend they are honest, there is a lack of consensus about exactly what constitutes ethical business. Each tactic is found unacceptable by the majority of respondents, but only 22% find absolutely none acceptable, and 24% find at least four of them acceptable. And these conjectural numbers may be even higher in practice. Many respondents wrote in that though they don't approve of these strategies, they've employed them on occasion. "I answered these questions from a 'what should I do?' point of view. I have slipped at times." And though they were performed out of necessity, "I felt guilty doing them." Some make the dark case that "it's naive to believe anybody can be successful and totally ethical." One respondent who reported sales in the $3-million-to-$9.9-million range says, "If we were completely ethical, we would be in the $500,000-to-$999,999 bracket." The sorry state of the economy seems to call for extreme measures. "Often what we do is not what we would like to do. Many business questions are more a matter of survival than ethics." Some have made decisions they would have forgone had business been better. "My business views have drastically changed with the economy -- both have hit rock-bottom, I hope." Others think such choices aren't so much a case of ethics, good or bad, as flexibility. "Ethics are defined by the situation. Therefore, good judgment is paramount."

-- Christopher Caggiano