Do the Right Thing: How Good People Do Good Business

Placing principle over profits can lead to dedicated employees and customer loyalty.

We always hear when businesses do bad things--the Enrons, the VWs, and the Wells Fargos of the world. Companies and their leaders who cheat employees, customers, and even the law. But it is possible to be a good person and run a good and honorable company that serves everyone.

I have always tried to stay true to this myself even when it means turning away business. One time a small business client said to me, "I am looking for an accountant that will be in the 'gray.'" I told him that I am accountant that is black and white, so we probably aren't a good fit. One customer is not worth compromising your integrity, or much less your business license.

I have found that other businesses and leaders also have demonstrated that they place principle before profit. It appears to pay off in how they are seen and rewarded by both employees and customers.

Here are three ways to do the right thing--along with a few companies who do them, what makes those companies special, and how you can follow their lead in your business without needing a huge budget: 

1. Create an atmosphere of equality.

Costco CEO Jim Sinegal's salary is no more than the combined salaries of 12 people who work the floor of his stores. He answers his own phone, and his office has no walls--a far departure from the traditional corner corporate fortress protected by closed doors. This down-to-earth approach is rewarded by customers who choose Costco over other giant retailers (and has led to record profits) and loyal employees that makes Costco have one of the lowest turnover rates in retail.

Lessons to learn: To be an effective leader, your team needs to feel like you understand their daily life. I have either done their work myself, or have worked side by side with someone who has a skill I don't have, so I can better understand what goes into the end result. This helps my team feel that I know what they go through to get the work done and helps me to not set unrealistic expectations.

2. Make business like a family.

Anyone who has flown Southwest Airlines has experienced their witty flight attendants and top-notch customer service. This attitude is a direct reflection of their core values that promotes a workplace that emphasizes fun and an inclusive environment.

Their thinking is that when employees are more invested in their jobs it carries over to how they treat customers. The airline practices what they preach, too.

After 9/11 when other airlines made deep layoffs, Southwest kept everyone on board and made zero pay cuts. They sacrificed in the short term to remain true to their values.

The reward for doing the right thing? Southwest stayed profitable and their market cap soon exceeded all its major competitors combined.

Lessons to learn: What can you do to create a more bonding and family-like atmosphere in the workplace? In my experience, giving people a way to celebrate, either individually or as a team, goes a long way.

When I run large stressful projects, I always build in some sort of celebration or party when the initiative is launched and finished. It provides everyone with something to look forward to and a way to shake off the tension so they can refresh.

It can be little things as well. For instance, rather than having a typical office meeting, I take my management team out to lunch.

3. Help people help themselves.

The computer chip manufacturer Intel's foundation donates to programs that encourage girls and minorities to study science, engineering, and mathematics. Their employees also benefit from the company's reassignment program that moves workers to different areas every one to two years, so they have an opportunity to explore new fields and learn new information.

Lessons to learn: Invest in people and people will invest in you. What can you do to further the education and growth of current and future workers?

In my accounting practice, part of the training plan in the first 90 days was to shadow another accountant and experience what they do with their client engagements. That way the training wasn't just technical, but the practical application as well. These employees learned how to answer tough client questions, deliver the work, communicate results and complete the back-office work that was required as well.

Sometimes doing the right thing is hard, especially when faced with obstacles, hardships, or tough business decisions. But more times than not, following your core values is always the best move, and when your team sees you make the hard decisions, leading by example can go a long way.

Originally published on on Feb 20, 2018