Business Ethics for Libraries: A Matter of Honesty
By John Harer
Back in ancient times, when vinyl records and eight-track tapes were the way to own a music collection, a library director where I interned required that all record albums received were to be routed to his office for review before they were to be cataloged. Later, we all noticed that the number of record albums coming out of Cataloging seemed like a trickle compared to years past. When the director invited everyone to his home for a Christmas party, we noticed that he had an extensive record collection, recognizing some that had been bought for the library. Similarly, it was a shock one day in a Texas university library periodicals room to actually find a copy of the most recent issue of Playboy magazine, not because we were offended by the nudity but because we had never seen any issue actually make it that far through the check-in process. When thinking about “business ethics,” what may come to mind are these kinds of “hands-in-the-till” anecdotes. As this particular story also illustrates, business ethics can be an issue for any member of the library staff, including administrators.
Business ethics as a concept actually encompasses more issues than employee theft. There are generally seven categories of ethical issues for business and organizations, many relevant to libraries. These include:
- Professional ethics: related to a specific profession, such as detailed in the ALA’s Code of Ethics.
- Accounting ethics: record-keeping practices in financial matters; prevention of accounting or record keeping scams to commit some form of dishonest act for financial gain.
- Human resources ethics: issues of employee-employer relationships; fair treatment of employees including:
- discrimination and affirmative action
- sexual harassment
- fairness in the employment contract and balance of power matters
- occupational safety and health
- Sales and marketing ethics: fairness in advertising; fair treatment in any relationship between the business or organization and its customers.
- Production ethics: ethical concerns for society and customers, including provisions for safe products for the consumer and for the environment, and a safe production process.
- Intellectual property ethics: patent and copyright infringement ethics; and sanctions against corporate spying and raiding.
- Legal ethics: legal obligations that pose ethical problems (Goree 2007, 259-61).
Libraries are not always seen as a “business” because they are not profit-making organizations. Neither do they make a product for sale to consumers. In this sense, some of the business ethics categories, such as marketing ethics, may not be relevant to libraries. Some categories have direct relevance. Recently, several North Carolina school librarians presented a professional ethics problem, telling me that they would never purchase the book And Tango Makes Three, an adorable, true story about two male penguins raising a baby penguin in the Bronx Zoo that some complain has a homosexual theme. These librarians found the book objectionable to their beliefs, but such a decision violates the American Library Association’s Code of Ethics.
The film Erin Brockovich illustrates the impact of ethical lapses by businesses and organizations. In this true story, a business lied to its employees and to the people in that community about a dangerous chemical being dumped into the water supply. Inherently, at the core of an ethical failure is an act of dishonesty. When the library director told his staff he must review all the record albums before being cataloged,, it was not only the theft that is unethical, but also the dishonesty perpetrated to commit the theft. However, dishonesty is not always confined to telling an outright lie. Most of us have received at least one credit card offer in the mail. These offers have two common aspects: (1) the cover letter is in large, readable font and uses clear, understandable language that includes all the wonderful benefits of the card, i.e., the sales pitch; and (2) the legal statement has several pages of extremely small print packed with legalese listing all the bad things they hope you won’t read or understand. Nothing in either of these parts of the offer is a lie, but the intent is clearly to hide the things you really need to know about the card, so the process becomes dishonest. A library dean who hides unpleasant policies behind confusing language is not being honest either, though s/he might not actually lie.
James Kouzes and Barry Posner’s book Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose it, Why People Demand It (2003) is based on extensive research into the qualities employees seek in their leaders and managers. Kouzes and Posner’s research has been largely responsible for a greater focus on business ethics in the private sector. Using the survey “Characteristics of Admired Leaders” they developed from 25 years of research, they asked 75,000 people worldwide for the qualities expected in leaders (2007a). Highly ranked traits included Forward-looking, Inspiring and Competent. But their research found that “Honesty” was the number one trait, reported by 90 percent of all respondents. Survey comments included “They practice what they preach” and “Their actions are consistent with their words.” Honesty is the foundation of credibility or, as Kouzes and Posner say, “If you don’t believe in the messenger, you won’t believe in the message” (2007b, 32). The authors also found that the terms “integrity” and “character” were synonymous with honesty. These are moral ideals and important to realize that they apply to anyone, since everyone has the potential to be a formal or informal leader. Kouzes and Posner explain, “We want our leaders to be honest because their honesty is also a reflection on our honesty…We simply don’t trust people who can’t or won’t disclose a clear set of values, ethics, and standards and live by them” (2007b, 32). Human resource ethics appears to be about fairness, a somewhat different value than honesty. However, honesty is directly linked to values and ethics. “We appreciate people who know where they stand on important principles” (2007b, 33). The foundation of honesty is rooted in values such as fairness.
Ethics in the library profession is important to everyone, including business ethics. Sturgeon reports that “ethics matters because it allows us to function in a humane and equitable manner without the control of a caustic and demagogic legal system” (2007). Practicing business ethics ensures that the library meets its organizational responsibilities, but the consistent practice of ethics requires leadership. Kouzes and Posner believe that leadership is everyone’s business, because “leadership is about relationships, about credibility, and about what you do” (2007b, 338). Grounding work life in honesty will ensure that the values we hold dear will guide us at work and give us credibility with ourselves and others.
Goree, Keith. 2007. “Ethics: An Overview.” In The Encyclopedia of Business and Finance, 2nd ed. Editor-in-chief, Burton S. Kaliski, vol. 1, 259-61. Detroit: Thomson Gale.
Kouzes, James and Barry Posner. 2003. Credibility: How Leaders Gain and Lose it, Why People Demand It. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
——–. 2007a. “Credibility: What Followers Expect.” Leadership Excellence 24: 7.
——–. 2007b. The Leadership Challenge. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Sturgeon, Roy L. 2007. “Laying Down the Law: ALA’s Code of Ethics.” American Libraries, 38: 56-7.
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