From the Oval Office of the White House, President Richard Nixon, under assault from the Watergate scandal, uttered a remark to his aides that is now in the annals of history: “We can do that, but it would be wrong.”
That phrase has resonated with me over the years. On more than one occasion, I have thought, “Yea, we could do that, but …
Most of us have an internal governor that serves us well in distinguishing between right and wrong. Now we may choose for convenience sake or that of greed to ignore our conscience, but it is there nonetheless, a nagging guidepost within.
Mind you, there are those rare psychopaths who truly lack behavior controls and have an absence of empathy. In his book, “The Psychopath Test: A Journey Through the Madness Industry,” British journalist Jon Ronson reported the incidence of psychopathy among CEOs is about 4 percent, which is about four times what it is in the general population.
If the Whiskey Holds Out
In my rather long career, I believe I have come into close working contact with only one such CEO, whom I believe would aptly fit into the psychopath category. Instead of empathy, I detected a certain joy in manipulating people, a lack of remorse, and a distinct belief that the rules do not apply to them.
These human versions of great white sharks are relatively rare, but they are out there. For them, an ethics course in business would be beyond the pale. It would do them no good.
But for the rest of us, this notion of business ethics is something that we should both recognize and be reminded of on a regular basis. If you are to do right by yourself and others, it behooves you to think about the rightness or wrongness of what you are doing or what you are considering to do.
I am reminded of a book by the late Larry L. King (not to be mistaken with the former CNN broadcaster), which was entitled, “Of Outlaws, Con Men, Whores, Politicians and Other Artists,” probably long out of print, which focused on the ethical lapses. This Lone Star letterman once quipped, “If the whiskey holds out and you’re not under indictment, you can have fun anywhere.”
If only it were true. But of course, it’s not.
I Walk the Line
As a business consultant, a man with a briefcase who lives at least 40 miles away from you and who has all the answers to all your problems for now and evermore, I don’t mind telling you that I have my own ethical tightropes to walk. This is true in both site selection consulting for corporate clients and economic development consulting for communities, which are my two fortes. I walk the line by the very nature of what I do.
The immediate question that came to mind when I first formed Barber Business Advisors some years ago was if there was an inherent conflict of interest in offering consulting services to companies for purposes of site selection and then also to economic development organizations. And I concluded that there most certainly can be such a conflict, depending on what actions I might take.
I have heard stories, none of which I can confirm, of site selection consultants who require payment not only from the corporate client that they are supposedly serving, but also from the finalist community that is to be objectively “chosen” as the best site. From my standpoint, that is wronger than wrong. (Yes, I know there is no such word as “wronger” but it fits here nonetheless.)
In short, a consulting engagement is not dominoes. You cannot rightly play both ends at once in terms of getting paid.
Any consultant employed by a company that would seek money from a community in order to be the chosen place in a site selection project is demanding a bribe. Certainly they are not serving their corporate master well. By the same token, any community that would cede to such a demand is engaged in graft.
I Tried and I Really Can’t
But it’s not always the consultants who are the culprits. A couple of years ago, I received an email from an economic developer offering me a $50,000 bounty to bring his community a project. Now, think about that for a moment. If I am employed by a company to provide site selection consulting services to them, I could no more take a community’s bribe money, and let’s call it what it really is, than I can whistle Dixie. (I actually tried after writing this and I really can’t.)
Similarly, I found myself squirming in my seat not so long ago when an economic developer from Ireland, visiting me here in Dallas, spoke of a sanctioned program in which the Irish government would pay me, the consultant, a bounty for every job that I would bring to his country.
I told him that I liked Ireland, which was the truth, and thought that its business and tax climate was one of the better if not the best in all of Europe. But I also said that if I were to bring a project to Ireland, it would be because I was in the employ of a company to do so. Therefore, I could not accept such a bounty.
Again, the very idea of taking money from both ends just doesn’t sit right with me. Mind you, I would not have a problem if the Irish government were to make a direct payment to a company that I represented as a financial inducement for it to locate there. That’s a different story. I have no problem in representing a company during incentive negotiations, as I believe that is a necessary component in getting a deal done.
But if I am holding myself up to be an objective site selection consultant, to serve a corporate client to the best of my ability, I cannot ask that communities pay me a pay-to-play fee. The ultimate site chosen will depend on the business needs of the company, and not some kickback scheme.
Again, we are not talking about financial incentives to the company, which I believe is a legitimate practice. Periodic talk of banning financial incentives, sometimes even by economic developers themselves (which really surprises me), indicates to me a fundamental lack of understanding of the financial commitment and risks being taken by a company when it chooses a location for capital investment.
Be assured that it is never a given that any such endeavor will be successful. If anything, incentives only hedge a company’s bet, which should be predicated on solid business reasons – you know, stuff like workforce availability, transportation infrastructure, energy costs, taxes and the like — and not incentives alone. Maybe this should be subject for a future blog.
No Quid Pro Quo
But here is where it can get a little tricky, but only if I let it. (And I won’t.)
In addition to site consulting, I do economic development consulting work. Among the different services that I offer is site certification and strategic planning. By virtue of the fact that a community has hired me to guide them through either one of these processes, the question may present itself as to whether that community should be afforded preferential treatment later down the line when I am representing a corporate client on a site selection job.
Well, I hope you would understand that the answer is no. There is no quid pro quo, but there are some caveats.
I don’t believe I can ethically give a community preferential treatment in a corporate site search project simply because I have done work for them in the past. Having said that, and this is important to note, I will probably know that site and/or community like the back of my hand as a result of my past work.
And if that site/community falls within the search parameters of a future corporate client, that it could meet the company’s specific needs, well then I will dutifully inform my client company about that particular site and community. I am simply acting on information that I have derived through the course of my work, hopefully to the benefit of my client.
But I have to be transparent about the whole thing. I will make the company fully aware of the fact that I had done work for that ED organization in the past. It’s all got to be above board. That’s just how we roll.
Now I hope I don’t come across as overly preachy with this blog. Rest assured, I’m more sinner than saint. But I do believe that ethical considerations are something that we all face in our daily lives, particularly so in business. Just pay attention to that inner voice and you will usually be fine.
Now back to Larry King, who wrote an article in Texas Monthly back in August 1974 entitled “Redneck.”
King wrote about the difference between a “redneck,” whom he sees as a perpetual loser, from the aspiring “good ole boy,” which may prove helpful in our treatise on ethics. If my memory serves me right, the article was excerpted from the aforementioned book, which unfortunately I no longer possess.
The bona fide Good Ole Boy may or may not have been to college. But bet your ass he’s a climber, an achiever, a con man looking for the edge. He’ll lay a lot of semi-smarmy charm on you, and middling-to-high-grade bullshit. He acts dumber than he is when he knows something, and smarter than he is when he doesn’t. Such parts of his Redneck heritage as may be judged eccentric or humorous enough to be useful will be retained in his mildly self-deprecating stories, and may come in handy while he’s working up to relieving you of your billfold or your panties.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dean Barber is the president/CEO of Barber Business Advisors, LLC, a site selection and economic development consulting firm based in Plano, Texas. If your company needs an optimal location for future operations anywhere in North America, we can help. If your community needs to improve its competitive standing, we can help. All requests for information are considered confidential.
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