• Tuesday, May 28, 2024
businessday logo


Ethical dilemmas

The case for good business

By Nwamaka Nwobi Okoye

“Do you import goods?” My friend asked me after I told her that I ran an ethical business and did not believe in giving bribes. I immediately saw where she was going with this. Her premise was: if you import goods, then you must be giving bribes. I winced as I recalled my experience trying to import some chair parts into Nigeria, about six years ago.

One of the conditions of importing any item into Nigeria required that the item must be tested in their country of origin at specific labs designated by the Standards Organisation of Nigeria (SON) before shipping (Standards Organisations of Nigeria, 2024). This was to ensure that all imported goods into Nigeria met minimum standards. We were however, advised by our clearing agent that the certificate could be obtained locally for 10 thousand naira.

As an ethical organisation, we decided to get the products tested by SON-approved Intertek labs. We spent thousands of dollars getting the products tested, obtained the certificates, and then preceded with importing the parts. When the products arrived, we proudly brandished our test certificates along with other documents required, to the customs officials to facilitate clearing our goods. To our surprise, they did not know what to do with the genuine certificates, as they were unaccustomed to them. Apparently, most people did not bother with getting their products tested. Why would they, when with ten thousand naira, you could locally obtain a certificate? After months of delay, we eventually paid the additional 10 thousand naira for the local certificate to clear our goods. This was in addition to paying two months’ worth of demurrage.

Cole defines Business Ethics as a set of moral values adopted by an organisation to steer the conduct of the organisation itself and its employees in all their daily operations both internally and in relation to the outside world (Cole, 2002). On the other hand, an ethical dilemma (ethical paradox or moral dilemma) is a problem in the decision-making process between two possible options, neither of which is absolutely acceptable from an ethical perspective (Corporate Finance Institute, 2024). The dilemma was between paying 10 thousand naira and working within a system that clearly deviates from the law, or going with what the law states, and being held to ransom while costing your organisation huge losses, and probably never clearing your goods.

While in the most simplistic of terms, an ethical issue is when one must face a decision between two options that involve right or wrong, a dilemma is more complicated. Both options have unacceptable ethical consequences. I have seen this several times as a business person running a business in Nigeria.

If you are in business and deal with large projects, particularly within the public sector, you may have come across this scenario: where you are called for negotiation. During the negotiation, you are told that your proposal is attractive, but you need to factor in an additional amount that will be paid to the people who award the contract, in exchange for their awarding you the contract. This also happens in private organisations and unfortunately, is commonplace in Nigeria.

Business ethics goes well beyond abstaining from bribes or resisting circumventing the system. Though globally, bribery and corruption are recognised as unethical practices, other unethical business practices include: Misleading Product Information; Unfair Business Competition; Mistreating Employees; Manipulating Accounts; Misusing business resources including time; Sexual Harassment; Poor Working Condition; Defamation; and Exploitation (Benneth, Uzoma, & Eke, 2022).

An organisation that mistreats or exploits its employees may not have the moral authority to demand ethical behaviour from them when it has first failed in its duty to treat its staff ethically. In 2013, the then Nigerian president, Jonathan Goodluck in 2013paid a surprise visit to the Nigerian Police Collage in Ikeja (Channels Television, 2013). The entire nation was shocked at the deplorable condition the police officers and trainees lived in, and at how low their salaries were.

While an organisation may recognise and emphasize its ethical conduct with customers, and authorities, does it behave ethically towards its staff and vendors? Is it reasonable to expect police officers who live in deplorable conditions and earn low wages to act ethically when armed? Does unethical behaviour by an organisation justify unethical behaviour by its staff?

People feel good about working for an ethical company because they know they are protected along with the general public (Benneth, Uzoma, & Eke, 2022). With all the lip service paid to business ethics, why is the Nigerian business climate so ethically challenged? What can we, as business leaders, do about it? Over the coming weeks, together we will explore these issues. I welcome your thoughts.