Situational Ethics: Don’t go there

She sells seashells: the extended inventory
Creative Commons License photo credit: quinn.anya

The probably not-so-old joke goes something like this: “There are two kinds of people: those who break people into two groups and those who don’t.”

When it comes to business ethics, there’s usually a pretty clear definition of the line between these two groups: the unethical and the accidentally unethical.

The accidentally unethical will stumble now and then and make a mistake that, in many cases, they didn’t even realize was a problem.

These folks are the reason why even the most jaded person needs to start by giving these situations a second look or a benefit of the doubt prior to dropping the hammer. Sometimes, you’ll find that easing into these situations will work to your advantage. You can always get serious about things after you gather more information.

The Wild West

I had just that situation occur a few years ago. Back in the wild west days of the internet, I found out that a competitor was using my product name in his web site’s keywords – something that no ethical website designer or business owner would do.

This is a problem for the same reason that I can’t put “Goodyear tires” on a sign in front of my tire business if I don’t sell Goodyear tires. It’s misleading and it uses someone else’s trade names to attract business to my business. Not only is this unethical / wrong / slimy, but in most cases it’s illegal.

Plus it really ticks off customers who pull in wanting a pair of Goodyear Eagle GTs only to find that you sell nothing but Chinese-made retreads.

Back to the story. When I first found this website, I was angry about it. This was back in the days when website keywords mattered a lot more than they do now and I was in the middle of the “climbing to altitude” phase of my business – fighting for every inch and not interested in giving any of it back to a thief.

But…something inside told me to tread softly, so I called the guy in Michigan and explained the situation. He sounded sincere when he explained that he didn’t know that it was illegal to use my business name and product name in his website keywords.

Note: In most countries, it’s ok to use a competitor’s brand and name when comparing your product / service to theirs. It’s not cool to use them in ways to “game the system”. We’ll skip the details and geeky stuff for now.

The twist

As I explained the problem to the guy using my trade names, he got it and agreed to remove the terms from his website…and then a funny thing happened.

He offered to sell his business to me.

At the time, he was my biggest competitor. If we lost a sale to someone at that time, more often than not, it was to this guy.

And yes, of course I jumped on it. Not only was it a chance to take over a sizable chunk of the market, it made us that much stronger.

The gravy: the guy was well-liked in the business, so his enthusiasm about getting out of the business and selling it to someone who would treat his customers properly gave us a nice word-of-mouth boost.

The other kind

I don’t mind competitors. You shouldn’t either – they make us all better.

In fact, several of the local ones are friends and we refer business to each other.

Unfortunately, a couple of them – and one in particular – has shown that he is the other sort of unethical person. The kind that knows it and doesn’t care if you catch them at it.

More recently, I came across someone locally who was using the byline of this blog to advertise his marketing business.

When I called him on the fact that it was uncool to use my byline (he’s copied my business slogan to promote his business), he was unapologetic and refused to stop, claiming he somehow randomly arrived at the same slogan despite never seeing my blog or hearing of me.

Yeah. I got that same story from the Easter bunny and Santa too.

Kinda makes you wonder how he treats his customers, doesn’t it?

The Genie

You find these situations in business, politics and your personal life – and they seem to become more prevalent as a situation becomes more challenging / desperate (like the tough economy many are experiencing now). Almost without exception they will come back to bite you. Don’t let tough times tempt you into doing something like this.

A friend of mine has a saying that fits these situations well: “When you move on, the only thing you leave behind is your reputation.”

That’s a genie that you can’t get back into the bottle.

5 thoughts on “Situational Ethics: Don’t go there”

  1. We had one of our competitors do things like this several times, supposedly oblivious to the ethical problems each time. They have stopped but the link building techniques they used several years back never caught up with them and it boosted them to the top. Oh well.

    1. Might be worth a tweet to @mattcutts, never know. There are other things you can do, but Im not sure theyre worth the time/effort. Overwhelming success in the marketplace is the best revenge.

Comments are closed.