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We’ve all seen the headlines, whether it’s on the national scene or our local tribal news. People caught doing unethical or illegal things in business or in their professional capacity. From million dollar bonuses, to mismanagement of funds, to embezzlement, to pilfering office supplies. How does one find themselves in such a dilemma? How is it that we justify unjust behavior? Whether you are a part of it or a victim, I believe our ethical standards might be worth revisiting.

For Native Americans, the lines between business ethics can be a little gray. If we believe we are doing the right thing or what is natural to us and society or business behavior supports something else, where do we find a true understanding of what is acceptable professional behavior and what is not? How do we maintain a strong ethical standing when we must make challenging business decisions?

As Native Americans, we have been trying to adapt to a new social and economic system for at least the last 100 years. Our understanding and interpretation of modern professional behavior and expectations may be a little confusing at times. What we know is the “right” thing to do, is not always what is demonstrated to us by outside businesses and public leaders.

We can define professional ethics as a written or unwritten code of conduct. It is how we determine what is acceptable behavior in a given profession. Ethics may be based on our personal beliefs and values systems (usually developed throughout our lives). Professional ethics provide guidance and clarity when an issue is in question. Such as the protection of privacy between an attorney and their client, when they are asked to share details of a client’s story.

However, business ethics are somewhat different because of the diversity of business industries and the make-up in size and operational dynamics. In business it is difficult to devise one uniform position on ethics and responsible behavior that would equally apply to all.

For the most part, business owners are under little to no oversight or supervision. They can act independently answering only to themselves. This can lend to tempting choices that may jeopardize the ethical standing of a whole organization or community. One unethical act or decision can affect many people. And perhaps the biggest issue lies with the example we set for our team members, tribal members, and especially our future generations.

To improve our professional standing we can:

Define our personal code of ethics: We should identify and evaluate our own personal value systems by asking ourselves; “What are our greatest values in life?” Most people value things like, freedom, honesty and success. But for Native Americans our values may be a little more humble, in that most of us share similar values of culture, family, community and our youth. When we do not make our values clear (even to ourselves) we can lose direction. Values help to dictate our professional behavior

Question the decisions we make: When we make daily decisions are we considering what our values are? How are the decisions we make everyday supporting or going against our basic value systems? Are we making the right decisions that protect those interests? An example might be: A business leader may be called upon to disclose information that might harm their professional character, but with strong values toward honesty, they will provide the information regardless of the personal impact.

Consider developing a business code of ethics among your staff and co-workers: In larger businesses and organizations it can be useful to develop a personalized code of ethics that all members agree to abide by. It is important to get input from all individuals involved and make sure there is “buy-in” from your members. This will ensure they commit to following the code. A uniform code of ethics goes a long way in building trust and confidence in a successful business and organization. Employees and members know what is expected of them and what they can expect of others they work with.

Share the code by posting it and reviewing it on a regular basis: Posting your code will also provide a clear reminder to all, what the guiding principles of their professional behavior are. It is also useful to share your code with customers, clients and constituents. They can also help to hold you accountable to those behaviors. In addition, it can support the success of your business and organization by letting your customers/clients know what to expect when using your services. It also promotes a positive example to society in general.

We must also be aware that there are many things that can interfere with following a strong ethical code, they can include; focusing only on our personal interests (thinking only of the benefit ourselves), threats or perceived threats (survival instincts may lead us to behave irrationally), poor examples from other business and community leaders and misguidance and loss of our personal value systems.

It is important to remind ourselves of the responsibilities we have to our businesses, organizations and communities. Do we want to perpetuate poor ethical behavior in our future generations? We must make every effort to build a strong ethical foundation in which our tribes can continue to grow and prosper on behalf of everyone. The quality of our lives and the future of our tribes and nations may depend on it.

Lucinda Hughes-Juan has many years of teaching and training in the fields of business and management, with a focus on the cultural dynamics in Native businesses and organizations. She is an enrolled member of the Tohono O’odham Nation. She holds an MBA in global management, and is currently a Ph.D. candidate in business and organizational management. E-mail her at MLS8090@aol.com.