How to be in business without selling your soul

Tory politician Michael Heseltine once declared:Businesswoman battling against temptation

‘There is no morality in the marketplace.’

It’s a bold statement, but cynics wouldn’t be surprised that it was made by someone from the publishing world – Heseltine is, of course, also the founder of the Haymarket magazine empire.

Scepticism about journalistic integrity is de rigeur today – but the attitude appears to be directly at odds with those expounded by former Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee, who died last month.

Bradlee was in the editor’s chair when journalists Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein uncovered the Watergate scandal, resulting in the downfall of Richard Nixon’s presidency. Bradlee’s death revived a discussion about ethics that has thrown the murky goings on at News International’s London offices into stark relief.

The spotlight is firmly on the media at the moment, but how do other business sectors shape up when it comes to ethics? Do entrepreneurs always have to forgo principles in favour of profit? Or is there a way of being successful without selling your soul?

What can YOU do to make sure both your conscience and your cash flow stay in rude health?

1. Work out what you stand for

If you have a team working for you, get them involved and enthusiastic from the get-go.

Sit down, brew a big pot of tea, grab a handful of coloured markers and scribble a list of the values you want to embody in your business. They might be service, reliability, value, being cutting edge, fantastic communication etc etc.

Shout loud, cross out and add, but don’t be afraid. These values will form the basis of the way you think about your business from now on, so get all your ideas out there.

2. Does money make your world go round?

With your lovely collection of values pinned up on the wall, turn your attention to the tricky question of filthy lucre.

Often, the mega-profits of the multi-nationals seem horribly distasteful, charging thousands of pounds an hour – plus the real kick in the teeth:  ‘or part thereof’.

Are you happy to charge as much as you think the market will bear? What do you want to earn? What feels reasonable and rewarding to you?

3. How will you hook them?

We all tear our hair out over spam, long contracts you can’t get out of and outright lies about what’s on offer.

Ethical businesses don’t need to lie – and they don’t need to buy into questionable marketing methods. Don’t let your nerves force you into being underhand. Believe in your product or service and your customers will too.

4. Your word is your bond

Speaking of being underhand, you might want to note down that you’ll always keep your promises.

It’s not worth promising too much just to get the sale. You’ll let customers down in the end and bad news travels fast – especially on social media.

5. Mrs Doasyouwouldbedoneby

Charles Kingsley’s Water Babies character embodies the idea of treating others as you’d like to be treated – but it’s a maxim that’s as true today as it was in 1863.

It’s about keeping promises, yes, but it’s also about paying up on time, being transparent in your dealings – and banning gossip about other people.

Which businesses treat you well? What examples of bad practice do you want to avoid? What examples of excellence could you bring on board?

6. Green up your business

You may not be in a traditionally ethical business but we can all regularly review what we get up to in terms of our environmental footprint.

Could you change to a green energy supplier? Set up recycling bins? Find a better way of disposing of waste – maybe a school or craft group could use the old packaging you throw away? Could you bike or cycle to work – and support your team to do the same? Even turning lights and computers off when you go home can make a difference.

7. Diversity brings energy

How equal is your business? Could it be better? How could you encourage more women, minorities, the disabled or those from different religions to join you?

Make a note of your diversity policy now – rather than getting caught on the hop when someone challenges you.

8. Make it personal and practical

It’s time to get specific. Work out how all this exactly applies to your business.

What does great customer service actually mean for your company? Which elements of your financial dealings do you reveal to the team – and which to your customers? How do you define showing respect to colleagues?

Write down exactly what customers and staff can expect of your company – and hold that as a benchmark for excellence.

As well as setting a joint goal to work towards and setting out your company culture, creating an ethical policy is a great opportunity for employees to raise any concerns they might have.

Don’t fret – you won’t be able to cover every eventuality but it will give a foundation of the spirit in which your business is carried out, making sure you can be an ethical entrepreneur.


Jacey Lamerton is a journalist for the hub, a forward-thinking online resource focused on supporting local business growth, backed by a network of the UK’s brightest regional newspapers.

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