I’ve often mentioned that the true mark of a good leader isn’t the level of success they bring but the value they create for their companies. Profitability isn’t and shouldn’t be the aim of companies and its leaders. Instead it’s the image, the values it holds and the opportunities it creates for people within and outside the company. That, for me, is what differentiates great from just good companies. That and how it stays clear from unethical business practices.

Lately there’s been much news of scandals and unethical business practices by some global giants as well as some astonishingly fast movers. Some of these may or may not have been intentional, but most of them were quite shocking.

There was the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal which tarnished the image of one of the world’s largest car manufacturers. The admission of the wrongdoing has led to a few senior management shake down, billions of dollars set aside to cover lawsuits and the inability to sell diesel engine vehicles (they controlled 70% of diesel powered vehicles in north America prior to this scandal). That’s a significant blow for the manufacturer of such renowned brands that include Porsche and Audi.

Less than a year later, Mitsubishi admitted to a similar rigging of their vehicle’s fuel economy with much shame to its leadership. Then there was Theranos, the multi-billion dollar company that was going to revolutionize blood tests with a single prick. Now they’ve laid-off 70% of their workforce and have been forced to shut down their labs. At its peak their CEO, Elizabeth Holmes, was headlining Forbes magazine and was valued at $4.5 billion, which has not been reduced to zero! All this was made possible when some of its employees confessed to inaccurate results, triggering investigations that led to its fall.

Lately, Samsung has also come into fire (no pun intended?). The largest mobile phone manufacture’s flagship smartphone, the newest Galaxy Note, has reportedly been exploding causing much alarm and concern. Adding insult to injury was the news of its washing machine doing the same.

In the financial sector, among the several we’ve heard of in the past decade, the latest was Wells Fargo whose employees were found to have created millions of fake accounts. That led to the company to fire 5,300 employees, though their leadership stays intact (surprisingly?).

How Unethical Business Practices Impact Us

The list of companies who have “faltered” or indulged in unethical business practices is larger than we would imagine. Every year news of some scandal committed by a few companies spreads and we as consumers, investors, and employees are left shocked. It makes you wonder what values the leadership and these companies hold? Is there no end to their greed? Are we to accept that companies cannot avoid some form of unethical business practice to succeed? Is this the norm now?

Unfortunately it would appear so when you see the practices of global giants exposed in such a manner. As a consumer and an employee it shakes your confidence in the companies that you believe in and rely on. We’re made to believe in these companies and their values. Align our personal and professional goals to the vision of the companies we represent and work so hard for. And then we learn of the wrongdoings of our companies and it rattles us up. It stains our careers because when we go out to the market looking for better opportunities, we’re now tagged with the negative “oh, you’re from THAT company” statement. The negative image of the company tarnishes our careers, while we may not even have any direct link to the scandal itself. Our best intentions fall short and are rendered useless.

Usually, the root of most scandals is isolated to few individuals or the leadership itself (though it wasn’t the case for Wells Fargo), yet the brunt of it impacts the wider audience. Everyone associated with it, its employees, suppliers and customers all are negatively impacted.

What Behavior Are You Trying to Encourage?

The unethical business practice itself may or may not be intentional, but a lot of times it’s either concealed or ignored. While the act itself may be shocking, what makes me wonder is what drives people to that point. One obvious culprit would be the stiff competitive corporate world where sales, market share and profitability force individuals to resort to “extreme” measures. Another reason could be the higher cost of an alternative, more reliable and probably an acceptable solution. This would push the production teams to cut corners to swiftly get the product out into the market and on shelves.

But irrespective of the reasons, a question the leadership should ask themselves is what behavior they are trying to encourage from their people. With the answer to that companies can form the basis of the type of values they give importance to, how they operate, what they encourage in their people and what, overall, is important to them. The behavior you want to encourage is the behavior to reward and will automatically discourage people from any contradictory behavior. In this case, it would discourage people from ethical business practices.

But, honestly, it’s easier said than achieved. If you’re going to operate in a tough competitive environment you’re going to face situations where you’ll be faced with tough choices. Some may be the ones that are aligned to your personal and professional values, while others may stray you away from them. The choice though remains with you. Choose wisely and you may be able to keep yourself and your company free from unethical business practices and maintain a clean employer brand.