ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday, April 08, 2007
Vol. 41 - No 45
Financial Times  

Business ethics and professionalism

By Haris Salpitikorala

There is a saying that it is not what you know that is important but who you know. I thought this was true in cases when you want to extract a favour from someone or get a work done by a government department. I never knew in Sri Lanka when you need to get things done with paid services, it was still important to have a great deal of networking.

Recently I had to face two unpleasant situations which are not common in societies that are known to have ethical values. One of which was visiting a lawyer who was introduced to me by a good friend of mine for a professional advice. I was given the appointment at 5 pm. When I went in, there were about 15 people with appointments. I was lucky in that sense because I was taken in by breaking the queue, as I happened to be there with his close friend. Anyway I was not at all comfortable as we just walked into the lawyer's office disregarding the long queue of people waiting to see him. That was my first visit and in my subsequent visits the appointments were at the same time but there were always more than 15 to 20 people waiting to see him. By the time, we were taken in, it was past 8 pm. I could see many who were waiting hours to get the consultation, and mind you all these people were given appointments to come there at a given time. I had little choice, the same way as others, as we have gone half way with him and we also had paid him fees for few consultations which we knew was not refundable, should we have decided not to proceed with him.

Then there was another appointment with a doctor who asked me to come at 6 pm. I was also taken in, at 8.30 pm as there were more than 30 people to see him. I had cancelled few appointments that were lined up at 6.30 pm,7 pm and 7.30 pm to see the doctor as I wanted to keep up to his time. In all probability, we should understand the fact they are not able to get you in on the dot, but the appointments should have lined up in such a way that approximate time would have been estimated to take us in. It is understandable to have a half an hour wait. But few hours, is unimaginable but true? Are we so inconsiderate that we have lost the respect for other people’s time? Mind you, both these people called themselves professionals. What is professionalism and what is ethics?

What we are discussing here is of no small matter, but how we ought to live as educated and intelligent people. Deciding “how we ought to live” is the foundation of ethics. It is just one of several branches of philosophy. Ethical practices are considered as not taking bribes, not misleading clients, not cheating, not lying and so forth.

All of this provides a negative glimpse on ethics. Ethics can also be viewed as a positive influence. Keeping up to time, being truthful, being respectful to others, being polite and having kindness, if all of these are approached conscientiously, the result will appear as daily conduct. Each professional takes their morality to work each day. When we are on the job it is easy to discover that people are governed by what appears to be a different vision of “How we ought to live”. Ethics is like glue, it holds our entire economic and free enterprise system together. Without ethical behaviour business deals would collapse, working conditions would be intolerable and trust would be non existent. Then the bitterness, jealousy, envy, inferiority complex and frustration will surface. Is this what is happening in our society? Disparity and disrespect leads to differences, and that leads to major conflicts and misunderstandings.

Ethics is not a public relation. It is not about creating a good image for the business nor is it a luxury. Ethics is how people conduct themselves in their daily business dealings hour after hour. The concept of ethics represents a set of fundamental assumptions that underlies nearly all the relationships and transactions in the dealing of an individual. The assumption about the way we treat people; what our rights and the rights of others are, where our individual rights end and the rights of others begin.

Ethical issues deemed sufficiently important may become laws but not all of it, as it covers lots of morality. You cannot legalise all morality. Laws can not be made to cover every situation that arises. It cannot mandate decent treatment and concern for other human beings. But treating people with respect no matter what position you are in is certainly an ethical issue. All professionals must practise and respect ethics. If not the moral part of the civil society will totally collapse.

Why is this mainly applied to professionals? It is because ordinary people seek their help and assistance from a specialized field, and they can be role models for many who visit them daily.
What do people mean when they say a “Professional”? This positive connotation includes such characteristics as job proficiency, reliability, dedication, throughness, dependability and commitment to provide good service.
Characteristics defining professionals are;

•Specialized knowledge not generally understood by the public,
•Threshold entrance requirement,
• Altruism behaviour,
•Code of Ethics.

In contrast, the term unprofessional suggests a shoddy or careless performance; a lack of concern for customers or clients; disregard for the reputation of a larger group of people; and a narrow and selfish concern for one’s own well-being.

Therefore professionals are supposed to take others needs and views in to account too. Lack of concern for customers and clients is considered as unprofessional. So ethics is evidently a part of professional conduct. It is not the degree behind your name that makes you a professional but it is your conduct as well, and in the absence of such conduct you are considered as unprofessional.

The writer is an insurance professional who practises abroad

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Copyright 2007 Wijeya Newspapers Ltd.Colombo. Sri Lanka.