By: Julia Nolan Woodruff, Extension Educator, Erie County
Recently I attended the National Conference for Extension Risk Management Education in St. Louis and one of the keynote speakers was Professor Marianne Jennings from Arizona State University. Dr. Jennings discussed the topic of ethics and how it related to risk management. My first thought was ethics, really does that relate to risk management and farmers? We are all ethical people, right? It’s those guys running large corporations embezzling millions of dollars, using company credit cards for personal charges, manipulating reports and data, committing financial fraud and the list goes on. Do farmers really have to deal with these issues?
As you think about these statements a little more, you begin to realize that first thought about ‘those guys managing large corporations worth millions of dollars’ could actually describe a farmer. Today’s farmer may be managing a family farm, but it could be a business as large as some of the corporations we’ve read about lately with ethical issues. Just because it is a family business, it does not exempt it from ethical issues.
Another thought, ethics affect both large and small businesses. The big ethical blunders are well publicized because most times they involve millions of dollars or a major cover up of information affecting a lot of people, but that doesn’t mean that smaller businesses don’t have problems caused by unethical decisions.
Dr. Jennings gave several reasons why ethics matter throughout her talk, but the one that really stuck was a quote by a Madison Avenue PR executive, “the single greatest competitive advantage a company has is its reputation.” As a farmer, when you think about your relationships within the community and the consumer, I think this quote rings very true. If your farm’s reputation was damaged due to an ethical lapse, how would that affect your relationship with landlords and your ability to rent land in the future? How would it affect your ability to obtain capital or operating loans from the local lenders? What about relationships with current employees and your ability to recruit and hire new, dependable employees? And the big question, how would consumers view your operation and agriculture as an industry as a result?
As you think about just these few questions, what cost could they have to your farm? What if you lost land you currently were renting because of an ethical issue or you lost out on rental land, not because your bid wasn’t high enough, but because the landlord had heard about questionable ethics of the farm management team? This has a real effect on the farm’s bottom line. Questionable ethics costs real dollars.
Ethics also matter because as a nation we are not doing so well, as Dr. Jennings pointed out to the conference audience. A few statistics she shared about our future work force from a Josephson Institute 2008 study are as follows:
- 64% of high school students cheated on an exam in the last year at least once.
- 82% have copied another’s homework.
- 82% have lied to their parents and 62% have lied to a teacher in the past year.
- 30% have stolen from a store in the past year.
- 26% admitted lying on their answers to this survey.
Other statistics she shared showed that 11% of college students reported cheating in 1963. That number grew to 75% in 2006. Finally the KPMG 2008 survey revealed that 74% of employees observed a high level of illegal or unethical conduct at work in the past 12 months.
Even though the statistics and the reports show that as a whole we are not doing very well on the ethical scorecard, we still have a tendency to believe as individuals we are very ethical. It‘s those other people who are acting in an unethical manner, not me! We tend to justify why something we did was ok. So I ask you, have you seen any signals around the farm in the past year that might give the impression there are unethical practices happening? What have you done in the past year that might be considered unethical?
A couple of examples to think about:
- You paid for your items at the store and when you got home you realized that you had not paid for the pack of gum you got. What do you do?
- You sold a bike (car, wagon, tractor) to a neighbor and it was later stolen. He asks you to inflate the sales price (on the claim form) so he could get a larger sum from the insurance company. What do you do?
As you think about these very common and real life questions, it helps us to realize ethical decisions aren’t just a challenge for CEOs of multimillion dollar companies. They really do apply to our farm businesses and our everyday lives. We have to think about how we conduct business and how we are perceived not only within our communities but worldwide. Lately, farmers are being judged more than ever by consumers. We need to continue to put our best ethical foot forward.
Dr. Jennings did a very good job of helping us to see the ethics of everyday life and it made me think of a story that related to my young daughters. My kindergartener had to read a story to someone each night and then that person was to sign her paper. She had chosen to read to an older friend one day, but the friend did not understand she needed to sign the paper. I told my daughter I would just sign her friend’s name on the paper for her so she could turn it in the next day. My third grader was quick to point out that was not the right thing to do because “Mom you don’t know that she really read the story and you can’t sign someone else’s name.” Maybe we could all learn a few things about ethics from our young children. There is no ‘gray area’ or justification for them – only right and wrong!