Does the concept of integrity still belong in the modern business environment?
These days, most business owners understand the importance of integrity in business. After all, words like “authenticity,” “trustworthiness” and “transparency” are prominent on company websites and throughout marketing materials.
But do you know what integrity in business really means? How does your business rate? And, most importantly, what can you do to improve it?
What Integrity in Business Means
On a personal level, people of integrity have a strong moral compass. They keep their word, take full responsibility for their actions and hold fast to their moral codes, even if it sometimes means winding up in uncomfortable situations or having to make tough decisions.
In a business context, the Business Dictionary provides the following definitions:
- Strict adherence to a moral code, reflected in transparent honesty and complete harmony in what one thinks, says and does
- State of a system where it is performing its intended functions without being degraded or impaired by changes or disruptions in its internal or external environments
As a business owner, your personal integrity is reflected in the way you do business. Regardless of whether you’re a freelancer or have a handful of employees on board, the moral code you follow out of work is the same set of principles you apply (or should apply) to professional relations.
Let’s say you’re working on a website design for one of your clients. You commit to delivering a quality project that will be your original idea. The client trusts your expertise so even if there’s no formal agreement in place, you don’t cut corners because it would be against your work ethic.
Taking this up a notch, integrity also refers to the actions of your company as a whole. If you and your employees display moral conduct in dealing with clients, suppliers and internally with each other, your business will perform better than if the opposite were the case.
The game of integrity in business boils down to making tough decisions guided by your internal compass. You won’t always be comfortable with the choices you make, but you’ll know and feel it’s the right thing to do.
What Integrity in Business *Doesn’t* Entail
Acting with integrity can prove even more difficult under adverse conditions. If your business happens to struggle, you’ll be more willing to keep it afloat by doing things you might not do under “normal circumstances.” You may resort to business practices and strategies that promise a short-term gain at the cost of your integrity.
Examples of practices that lack integrity include:
- Not treating every customer with the same baseline of respect, no matter how much they spend with you
- Underpaying or mistreating staff or contractors
- Misleading clients or misrepresenting your services and abilities
- Overselling and under-delivering
- Faking reviews and running misleading ads
- Spamming clients and customers with unsolicited emails
Where you draw the line is a subjective choice. But it’s worth thinking about the things you and your business stand for before committing to something you may come to regret.
Don’t wait for some magic moment or benchmark of success to start behaving with integrity. Incorporate these principles into your business from day one.
Why Integrity in Business Matters
Now that we know what integrity in business is, let’s see why it matters and why you should care about running your business under its banner.
1. It Gives Your Business a Competitive Edge
Trust is not earned easily these days as clients are becoming warier of the businesses they choose to interact with. For that reason, big companies put plenty of effort and resources into proving they conduct business in a morally sound way.
Most of the time, people just know better.
In search of an alternative to corporate vendors, many clients turn to small businesses, just like yours, to source products and services. That’s why it’s even more important that you run your business with integrity and meet that demand.
Companies that live and breathe their values are the ones people are willing to spend their money with. If you deliver quality, play fair with your clients and offer transparency on top of that, people will keep knocking at your door.
2. It Helps Save Face During a Crisis
Back in 2017, United Airlines got entangled in a series of slipups that gave them plenty of bad press. It all started with a passenger who was injured when he was forcibly removed (the company called it “re-accommodation”) from an overbooked flight.
Instead of owning up to their mistake, the CEO attempted to attack the passenger in a public statement and blame him for causing the ruckus. After a video of the incident went viral, the airline was hit by a wave of criticism with many boycotting United flights altogether.
Had United acted with integrity and admitted wrongdoing, they could’ve avoided much of the aftermath and saved face. The alternative proved highly detrimental and left the company scrambling to regain reputation.
Whenever you find yourself in a situation where you’ve made a bad business decision, don’t try to sweep it under the rug or avoid responsibility. Suck it up and let your clients know you’ve learned your lesson.
3. It Makes Difficult Decisions Easier
Imagine a cloak-and-dagger scenario in which you receive an e-mail from a former employee of your direct competitor. The person claims to have insider information that could potentially ruin that company’s public image.
Would you be willing to play dirty and use that intel to your advantage?
A business owner with a solid moral code would never consider accepting that offer. Someone lacking professional integrity, however, might be torn between the allure of potential benefits and the moral repercussions that come with the package.
Each time you face a difficult business decision and choose to follow your moral compass, it’s a positive step. The next time you need to make a similar judgment, it becomes a tad easier and results in less decision fatigue.
4. It Costs Less in the Long Run
At the outset, running your business with integrity may seem like a costly investment. Why refund a dissatisfied client if it means losing profit? Why accept project feedback if it means time-consuming corrections on your part?
Some business owners are more than willing to violate their moral code to secure immediate gain or delay consequences. The truth, however, is that lack of integrity can only lead to short-term wins and never lasting success.
Instead, focus on building strong relationships with your clients that are based on honesty and mutual respect. Don’t wager your clients’ trust to earn a few extra bucks today and lose thousands tomorrow. It’s just not worth it.
5. It Helps Secure Favourable Publicity
These days, news travels quickly and negative stories are the ones that garner the most attention. It doesn’t take long for a Tweet or a YouTube video to go viral.
But it works the opposite way too. Treating your clients, staff and contractors with integrity can help you secure favourable mentions on social media and bring word-of-mouth recommendations. This may seem small to start with, but a good reputation is not built overnight.
Five Dimensions of Integrity in Business
As a business owner, you’ve probably learned how to make certain decisions almost automatically, based on a pattern that has worked well so far. Sometimes, however, you should stop and consider whether or not the decision you’re about to make is OK with your moral compass.
Integrity in business has many faces, so you should be able to recognize them when they come your way. Each represents an opportunity to build or undermine your resilience.
Whether you store sensitive client data, handle confidential contract information or promise to deliver quality service, you enter into a mutual relationship of trust with your business partners.
In 2017, consumer credit reporting agency Equifax suffered a cyber attack during which hackers stole the personal data of 145 million Americans, including social security and driver’s licence numbers. To make matters worse, the company stalled reporting the incident while the CEO traded company stock to avoid losing money in the aftermath.
Although the Equifax example is extreme, it shows what a lack of integrity can lead to. Due to incidents like this, trust is in short supply these days so you need to make an extra effort to make honesty and transparency priorities in your business.
Integrity in business is not something you can change on a whim. You don’t juggle your morals depending on the situation or decide to put them aside when it’s convenient. There will be times it’s easy and natural to behave with integrity and times it’s more difficult.
Consistency means that you don’t ghost a longtime client if a more lucrative contract comes around. You also don’t suddenly start cutting corners and delivering subpar client work to focus on a gig that pays better.
The ability to admit a mistake and face the consequences head-on is pure gold in business. It takes guts to say, “I messed up,” make up for the wrongdoing and move ahead without complaining.
That’s exactly what KFC did when the majority of its U.K. restaurants ran out of chicken last February. Due to a supply-chain hiccup, over 800 restaurants had to temporarily close their doors, which led many customers to vent their anger on social media.
In response to the situation, KFC ran a tongue-in-cheek newspaper ad with an apology. The ad featured an empty chicken bucket branded with “FCK” in place of the restaurant’s iconic logo. Needless to say, the slipup helped KFC secure positive publicity and showed they can take a joke.
As your business grows, your integrity in business will become part of a much bigger structure. The moment you bring in new talent to the company or partner up with other independent contractors, you assume moral responsibility for the people you choose to work with.
You can’t hope to run a business with integrity if your team doesn’t play along. Individuals contribute their personal values across the entire organization, so it’s your job to find and hire the right kind of people.
Since integrity in business works both top-down and bottom-up, it would be unreasonable to expect employees to exhibit a pristine work ethic and make sound business decisions if you don’t provide the right example.
Workplace culture and its standards are constantly changing. Saying and doing things that were acceptable 20 years ago is not going to cut it today.
You need to allow some headspace for your integrity to grow and evolve too. Don’t become fixed or defensive. Instead, stay open to continuous learning and improvement as you, your business and the world around changes.
Four Ways to Improve Integrity in Your Business
Integrity is not an innate skill. Instead, you should think of it as a muscle that can get stronger or go soft when not used.
1. Evaluate It on a Personal Level
If you think there’s a problem with integrity at your company, you should first inspect your personal moral compass and see if it needs some maintenance.
- Are you following the same moral standards in your personal and professional life?
- Do you evaluate your business decisions beyond the simple cost-benefit dimension?
- Do you live and breathe the values and mission of your business?
- Do you treat your clients and business partners as your equals?
By constantly evaluating your actions, you’ll keep your integrity in good condition and prevent it from getting compromised at any point.
2. Learn What ‘Integrity’ Means to Others
As a business owner, you may feel the temptation to enforce your personal values across the company and imprint your moral standards on employees. While your personal integrity informs integrity in business, these are not quite interchangeable things.
It’s important that integrity in your business is more than your vision alone. It needs to be something your whole team can legitimately buy into and associate with.
You want to learn what integrity means to your employees. See if your moral compass aligns with theirs and if they understand the mission of the company.
3. Hire with Values in Mind
Once you’re ready to spread your wings and bring in fresh talent to help you grow, you’ll want to look for people who uphold the same moral standards you do.
Here’s what Warren Buffet said on hiring people with integrity:
“Somebody once said that in looking for people to hire, you look for three qualities: integrity, intelligence and energy. And if you don’t have the first, the other two will kill you. You think about it; it’s true. If you hire somebody without [integrity], you really want them to be dumb and lazy.”
Exceptional performers are in high demand but a track record of performance can’t overrule work ethic. Make sure you’re hiring people who are a culture addition, not a culture conflict.
4. Learn It from Others
Integrity may stem from intrinsic, personal principles but you don’t always have to face difficult choices alone. Why not pick the brains of people who’ve already mastered this game?
If you ever find yourself in a reading mood, be sure to pick Extreme Ownership by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin. The book, authored by two highly-decorated Navy SEALs officers, successfully transfers a military philosophy of ethical leadership into a business environment. It’s a great read with many examples straight from the battlefield.
Need more inspiration? Have a look at this Goodreads list for some ideas.
Five Ways to Demonstrate Business Integrity to Your Clients
According to data collected by Statista, 88% of American consumers would stop dealing with a company that conducts business in an irresponsible way. Further, 76% would not even consider buying from a vendor that backs causes that are in contrast with their beliefs.
1. Make It Part of Your Organization’s Culture
If you expect your employees to act with integrity when dealing with clients, they first need to understand and share the values of your business. In order to do that, you should create and maintain a culture of integrity that penetrates every level of your company.
- Communicate and explain your work ethic from the moment of hiring
- Set a good example through ethical leadership
- Be open to internal feedback and invite discussion
- Implement a code of ethics so your employees can refer to it when needed
2. Offer Stellar Customer Service
Think of all the times you turned away from a vendor because you became disillusioned with the client experience they provided.
Do you remember the things that put you off?
Whether it was slow response time, poor communication culture or reps who didn’t keep their promises, customer service is one of the things that can make or break your business. Opt for a client-centric approach and see to it that your employees follow suit.
3. Prioritize Quality Work
Integrity in business is not only what you do but also how you do it. Whenever you promise your clients high As, integrity requires that you deliver nothing less than that. Mid-Bs or high Cs won’t do.
For that reason, you want to make sure your clients get the quality they’re paying for. It doesn’t matter if it’s a copywriting project or a bag of freshly roasted coffee, you want to put your best foot forward for every client, without exceptions.
4. Practice Transparency
Transparency in business is much more than an occasional sneak peek into office life. It’s a building block of your professional reputation. It also determines if clients are going to trust your expertise and want to do business with you.
- Be open about your workflow and production process
- Let your employees be the spokespeople for your business
- Make it easy for clients to contact you and find information about the company
- Be upfront about any extra costs and requirements before starting a project
Take a look at this Buffer article on implementing transparency in your business.
5. Give Back
Running any type of business comes with social responsibility as well. Why not use some of your resources and give back to the community?
- Donate to a local charity or volunteer for social work in your neighborhood
- Sponsor a local event or contribute your time to help organize it
- Partner with fellow business owners to empower the community
- Use your knowledge and skills to support non-commercial ventures
- Engage your employees in extracurricular activities
Beyond Your Business: Choose Vendors with Integrity
As much as it’s important to build up your internal integrity, you also don’t want to violate your moral code by partnering with people and organizations that don’t necessarily share the same values you do.
For instance, if you run a sustainable business and genuinely care about the environment, you don’t want to source production materials from vendors that don’t consider these things, do you?
When you decide to work with business partners, you accept the liability that comes with them. It also sends a message to your clients who will be less willing to work with you if you don’t practice what you preach.
While we’re at it, be sure to check out the no-strings-attached FreshBooks trial and see if we’re a good business partner for your venture!
Running your business with integrity won’t always be easy. It’ll put you in many uncomfortable situations and sometimes even cost money. But it’s well worth it.
Integrity will help you win the trust of your clients, build better partnerships and keep your employees (and yourself) happy. You can’t afford not to have it.
If you still have 13 minutes left, here’s some food for thought from TED on honesty in business:
about the author
Dawid is a freelance copywriter and blogger at OctoScribe where he helps B2B tech companies talk human instead of code. When he’s not writing about tech, he’s enjoying the simplicity of analog photography and daring bike trips with his wife.