There's been a lot of buzz lately about bad behavior in Silicon Valley, and anybody with a brand worth protecting should take note.

Uber has been manipulating drivers into working longer, sometimes on less lucrative routs. Instagram's crushes of "likes" and Snapchat's "streaks" are designed to give our brains rushes. Many people are feeling that this behavior is not very ethical.

Now, I'm in marketing. And if you're reading this, there's a chance you are too. These kinds of hooks are an accepted part of a marketer's toolkit: I cannot begin to count the number of research reports and white papers that have been penned on how to get the most productivity out of workforce, even a contracted one like that of Uber's.

Yet there is a line, and everyone who's paying attention knows where that line is and how easy it is to cross.

Companies have long walked that line between what's truly illegal and what's just bad behavior. But those companies that last a really long time align their business practices with their values and their values align with what works for customers, employees and partners.

For years, Southwest Airlines has held off on hitting passengers with fee after fee. Last fall, even it finally signaled that more fees are coming, but that free bags are safe. Somehow, that didn't seem quite as bad as one would think. Why? Customers know when they're being manipulated or taken advantage of, and Southwest had earned our trust that it doesn't abuse us as customers.

It's a slippery slope between a company like Southwest and a company like Uber, and it's easier to fall down that slope than you might think. Here's how it happens--and how you can avoid it:

One Oversight at a Time

It's probably rare that executives wake up one morning and set out to do something really snarky to their workforce or customers.

Ethical lapses are more likely to occur one tiny bit at a time; with a decision to forgo double checking, just once, the track record of a third party manufacturer, or to take a social media tool one step more than necessary, or to use customer data in just that slightly more invasive way than an individual would likely be comfortable with. Technology and the pace of competition encourages companies to push too hard to win, or even to survive.

Leaders may get so elated by the power of technology to make them more effective that they end up blind to the impact that their decision might have on real people, or on their company's long term success. The aggressive sales culture at Wells Fargo got so out of hand employees opened up two million bogus checking and credit accounts without customers' permission--resulting in a scandal that's cost the bank $185 million in fines and a badly tarnished brand.

That companies, at times, overstep ethical boundaries--without doing something illegal--is understandable. Everyone makes errors, even errors of judgment.

But to push the ethical boundaries is never wise decision making or decision making that will build a lasting brand.

As marketers and business leaders, we make decisions everyday that either build onto the trust of our brands--or take from them. Those little decisions, when exposed, create a nagging feeling with your customers that they're being taken advantage of. Just look at Uber's current reputation for evidence of a steady erosion of trust.

Alternatively, no one may notice unethical moves for months or years, (think lending practices that fed the housing meltdown) or maybe they won't even be noticed for decades (think Big Tobacco) but the day will come. And your brand will be forever changed because of it.

The Upside of Good

There's evidence that ethics actually pays. A study published in 2015 in the European Journal of Business Management revealed that adoption of business ethical codes of conduct and employee adherence to rules and regulations enhanced corporate growth. The Wall Street Journal found that consumers will pay a small premium for ethically produced goods, and that they'd punish an unethically made product.

In one's personal life, one way to build self esteem is to do esteemable things. The same gut check applies to the building of a long-lasting, respected brand. It takes place one esteemable act at a time.

Published on: Apr 28, 2017