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Ethics and intent

May 18, 2016

Today’s world of open, electronic communication does not always lead us to the truth, but it frequently exposes those who behave dishonestly or without integrity. As a result, there is far greater focus on ethical standards and public expectations continue to grow.

Ethics are fundamental to contracting and negotiation. If there is no honesty in the commitments we make, trading activity not only becomes more risky, but eventually it would collapse. Yet competitive pressures – and the desire to make money – mean that businesses (and their individual employees) often act at the margin of their true capability or rules. Over- commitment by a sales representative is one example; creative tax avoidance by the CFO and the Board may be another.

 It is interesting to observe how organizations and individuals react when they are caught out, when they have overstepped the mark. Frequently, I hear the childish refrain: “I didn’t mean to do it,” – as if this lack of direct intent somehow exonerates the offending party from blame.

 Sometimes, of course, we act from ignorance and cannot readily anticipate the outcome. But in itself, ignorance or lack of intent do not seem to me acceptable excuses. Ethical standards demand a much higher bar – and essentially beg the question: “But did you mean NOT to do it?”

And I think this principle of testing and validation lies at the heart of good contract and commercial management. ‘Meaning not to do it’ involves thinking through the potential consequences of actions (or sometimes inactions) and ensuring decision makers are equipped with the knowledge or insights that support honest and ethical commitments – and avoid that rather pathetic excuse of “I didn’t mean to do it”.


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