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Ethics are a suit of clothes

Ethics are a suit of clothes. People who wear blue suits aren't better or worse than people who wear brown suits. They're just different.

The same can be said for sets of ethical actions and beliefs. Everyone likes to believe their suit is white and everyone else's is black. The reality may be that everyone is wearing shades of gray.

An incidental point: White is seen as good in our culture, but Asians associate white with funerals.

Dictionaries define ethics as "the discipline dealing with what is good and bad and with moral duty and obligation." If we're to take that definition as true, then who can possibly say what is moral or immoral? And who can therefore tell us what is ethical?

American business people are always reading about the lack of ethics in places such as China, Russia and Indonesia, to name a few. The articles attribute poor protection of intellectual property, counterfeiting, inaccurate bookkeeping and the continuous requests for bribes as evidence of an ethics vacuum.

In the above countries, it's essential to have strong ties with local government when operating there. The government can act as your partner, shareholder, client -- or deal-killer. Americans complain about this. "Why do I need their government as a partner? Why can't I run my business without interference?"

When our government leaders go to China, they confront the Chinese about human rights. Our official policy seems to cast ourselves as the moral leader of the free world, and divide people into two camps: those that are with us and those who aren't.

We do the same thing in business. When our products don't meet local specifications overseas, or our practices won't fit into their protocols, we again wave the ethics stick.

When we travel, we witness the American muscle in penetrating foreign markets, as evidenced by McDonald's or our TV shows. The incorrect leap we then make is that the world wants to be American and thus follow our methodologies.

If we look at the issue of American business practices from abroad, we'll find that many of our practices are seen as quite corrupt.

A few perception examples of American ethics:

Strict environmental laws are a luxury afforded to the developed nations. Hence, we manufacture where it is easier to pollute.

If the white suit represents good, and the black suit evil, then which suit should we be wearing to that meeting?

If someone is really interested in outside perceptions of American economic practices -- both governmental and business -- visit Transparency International's Web site ( This site publishes the corruptions perceptions index (CPI), which rates countries based on perceptions of people who do business in multiple nations. Many will be surprised to learn the United States is ranked 17th, behind such places as Austria (No. 10) and Hong Kong (No. 15). We aren't even in the top 10 percent.

Decker defines corruption as "bending the law to enhance your economic well-being."

If we accept that definition, we must ask: At what levels does corruption exist? As Americans doing business abroad, we tend to see corruption wherever we look. It can exist anywhere, from small to large business, government and academia.

When discussing corruption, South Americans often ask: "Why are you Americans as corrupt as we are, yet you deny it? You do what we do, and then you do worse by not admitting it."

When American cities, counties and states offer tax holidays to lure firms into their region, are they being corrupt? After all, there are already businesses operating, paying taxes and following the rules as they were previously understood. Yet a new firm can come into the market without contributing.

And whatever firms were already established are expected to continue paying taxes, creating jobs, keeping the air clean and staying put. If those established firms looked elsewhere for the same incentives granted to the newcomers, they might be called unethical.

Which suit do you wear to that meeting?

When we discuss ethics with our Asian friends, we often hear the Chinese proverb that reads: "When we have food on the table and clothes on our backs, then we worry about ethics."

But in the United States, we have plenty to eat. How do we justify misconduct?

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