Just as the word ‘ethics’ has a different definition from the word ‘etiquette,’ there is a vast difference between business ethics and business etiquette. There are even instances where you must forgo etiquette in order to remain ethical in business practices.
Business ethics is a code or a set of standards that a business adheres to. This code essentially states what is considered ethical, and what is considered unethical in terms of how the business is conducted in relation to what is best for human beings, the community, the environment, and so on. Business etiquette, on the other hand, is essentially conducting business affairs in a polite manner. It can be compared, in some ways, to dinner table etiquette.
For example, if an employee is rude to a customer, this is not unethical, but it is considered poor etiquette. It may even be against the company’s policy that relates to how employees interact with customers. One can have perfect etiquette and extremely poor ethics.
Another example of this is an attorney who has beautiful manners. In fact, his overall social and business etiquette is so perfect that he fits in well at any function, and performs well in any situation. However, if he is billing his clients for hours that he did not actually work, he is not using ethical business practices.
So, what must you do when you face a choice between etiquette and ethics? Above all else, choose to honor the code of ethics first, but have enough etiquette to try to smooth the situation over at the same time. Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work out, and one must choose ethics and let the etiquette cards fall where they may.
Have you ever seen the movie, ‘Jerry McGuire?’ This is a movie about a sports agent. He realizes, after a few nights of not getting any sleep because his conscience was plaguing him that the sports agent industry, as a whole, was rarely considering what was best for the athletes that they represented beyond the amount of money and benefits that they could negotiate for them, which in turn raised their own profits. He wrote a report about how this should be changed, and put it in the boxes of all of the sports agents at a convention.
In this fictional characters situation, ethics met etiquette in a head on collision. What he did was ethical, but not without etiquette. However, it did cost him his job, and there wasn’t much etiquette – or ethics – involved in that, mostly on the part of the company that he represented.
Again, there will come a time in your business transactions where you must choose between ethics and etiquette. Remember, however that in most cases, an unethical business decision will have a profound effect for a long time to come, while acting in a manner that is not dictated by good etiquette will usually only result in a few people talking about your poor manners for a short time. When you make an etiquette faux pas, it is usually soon forgotten, and future good etiquette can generally make up for it, but when you make an unethical decision, it can haunt you for the rest of your career.