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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Muller

The EHH Factor

(Ethics, Honesty, Humility)

In the business world, as in most other situations including family situations, friendships, community, etc., being ethical honest and humble is sometimes underrated, and clearly not discussed as much as it should be.

So many, especially in the younger generations, see far too many examples in sports, movies, television, social media, politics, etc. where ethical, honest and humble behavior is absent or at least lacking. Instead, we see examples of so-called role models twisting the facts, knocking the opposition, bragging, and attempting to position oneself in a positive light by criticizing others.

Let’s start with ethics. Ethics involves so much more than honesty. To me, behaving ethically means treating others the way you would want to be treated. Behaving ethically means that you make the extra effort to not only be honest, but to proactively communicate to those who deserve to understand what is going on. Ethics means that you operate from a foundation of believing that everyone deserves to be treated equally until they behave in a way that proves otherwise. Ethics means that you represent the needs and interests of all those who you are supposed to be serving, even though there will be majorities and minorities surrounding every issue. Behaving ethically means that you do not justify an action by changing the ground rules after the fact. Behaving ethically means that you do not twist facts to support what you personally want to do, but instead, you share objective information, you present the options that were considered, then you share your recommendation or decision acknowledging that other options would also be valid but that you believe that one particular action is best.

Ethics requires that you do the right thing at all times, even when nobody else will see or know what you did. A perfect, but simple, example occurs all the time in our lives. We are walking down a hallway of a location we take pride in (our home, our business, our department, etc.) and see a wad of waste paper lying on the floor as we walk by. Nobody else is around, so it would be easy to just walk past and let someone else pick it up. But if this is your business, your home, your department, you have pride and just take the few seconds to pick up the mess and throw it away. You don’t do it because someone is watching. In fact, nobody will ever know that you did it, but YOU will know if you did or did not.

Extend that simple example to the accountant who decides to ignore an incorrect depreciation schedule because she did not create the problem. Or to the manufacturing floor inspector who lets a few parts through to shipping because stopping defective parts will create more work for themselves. Or to the payroll manager who fails to communicate changes to tax withholdings to employees because he knows that they likely will never notice the change.

Honesty is more straightforward. It simply means that telling the truth does not happen 99 percent of the time, it happens 100 percent of the time, without exception. Being honest does not permit you to alter the facts even if stating the true facts could put your career at risk.

Let me share a story about the importance of honesty. I had a friend at another company who was promoted to become a plant manager. The president of their division came to the plant a few months later for a visit. During a tour of the plant, the president talked to someone on the plant floor and asked about some product lying to the side of the production line. The worker stated that the product was defective due to a significant problem they had with a specific manufacturing step. The president asked what percentage of the product was impacted, and the worker said that it was over 20 percent of the output for that month.

Back in the office, the president, visibly irritated, asked my friend how in the world he, as plant manager, could let that happen given how the division was trying to keep costs down and improve profits. My friend apparently became flustered, fearing that if he told the complete truth, his job would be in jeopardy. So, he said that the shop worker did not understand the true facts and that he gave him bad information. The president asked what the real defect rate was. The plant manager said that the defect rate was actually closer to 5 percent for that month and that he had fixed the problem very quickly once the problem came to light.

Later, the president came back to headquarters and talked to the VP of manufacturing about the issue. He found out that the VP was very familiar with this issue, and that in fact, the defect rate had been what the shop floor worker had indicated.

“Do you mean Darren lied to me?”

“Well, I wouldn’t say that, maybe he misunderstood the issue. Let me call Darren to discuss this, and I will get back to you.”

About a day later, after a call was made to Darren, the VP called the president and told him that it appeared as though Darren was intimidated and gave an answer that he thought the president wanted to hear.

The end of that story was that Darren resigned a few days later, and others assumed that if he had not, he might have been fired. The bottom line is that in the business world, managers and leaders have to assume that they are getting correct information, so that they can make good decisions. If anyone in the chain of command ever hides the truth or twists facts to cover themselves, damage to the organization can occur, and that person needs to leave the organization. Otherwise, chaos would reign, and bad decisions could threaten the survival of the business. No business or organization can have a person in charge of a significant operation without having complete trust that they will always tell the truth, no matter how bad the news might be.

Last, on to humility. Being humble is not just a good personality trait; it can help anyone be more successful. Why? Because someone who is humble usually knows that nothing is quite as wonderful as it may sound, and that nothing is usually as bad as it may sound. They do not ‘toot their own horn’ because they know that individual effort usually does not solve problems, teamwork does. Being humble saved me from many difficult situations.

Once I was encountering problems in one of my divisions with inaccuracies in shipped quantities. That is, a customer order might be for forty-five pieces of one product, but forty-two or forty-eight or fifty-two were being shipped all too often.

My first reaction was amazement that someone working in a warehouse could continually make mistakes doing something as simple as counting product to put into a box. But I also realized that sometimes, computer systems might be at fault, improper training could be the culprit, or challenging work conditions could be to blame.

It would have been all too easy to call the warehouse manager and chastise him for these continuing problems. But instead, I called him calmly to discuss the issue and asked him if he had ideas to improve the situation and to find out how much he knew about the problem. His reaction was unexpected. He suggested that I give him a week to dig into this problem, because he was not sure what exactly the root cause was. He clearly knew he had a problem in his facility. I agreed to give him a week to investigate. My reaction was that I respected his honesty that he did not know what the real problem was, but was happy that he was more focused on getting to the bottom of the issue.

That warehouse manager did something that was very impressive. He decided to go out into the warehouse on afternoon shift for a week and pick and ship product right alongside all the workers.

What he learned in that week was so much better than if he had just asked the workers what was happening. He discovered that picking a quantity of three out of a bin and placing them in a box was easy enough, but if the quantity was over twenty or thirty or forty, it was just about guaranteed that the quantity would be in error. Why? He described a very typical situation. He was situated in a very busy aisle, holding an order in one hand and moving a cart with another. He starts to pick forty pieces out of a bin and places piece one, then two, then three, four, five, six, seven into the box.

Then a co-worker yells, “Andy, do you want me to ship this rush order on the 2:00 truck?”

“Yes, go ahead please!”

Okay, where was he again, oh yeah, he had picked six, right? Or was it eight? Or seven? Then he gets up to twenty-eight, and a horn sounds, and he has to move out of the way of a tow motor. Where was he again? In the meantime, he is asked how many workers were on the shift that day.

“I think we have thirty-two here today”. Back to picking, and he starts ‘thirty-two, thirty-three, thirty-four.’

He indicated that without some sort of counting device or barcoding technology, it was extremely difficult to get the correct quantities in the box. Noise and interruptions were causing the picking quantity errors. His recommendation was to invest in some barcoding processes to help solve the problem. That recommendation turned out to solve the problem, although implementing the solution took several months.

If I had just yelled at him and told him to solve the problem now or else, he might have done something costly such as hiring additional workers to inspect every box quantity, adding more costs than needed. By having the maturity to understand that in most cases, workers are doing their best, and usually, problems are more complex and difficult to solve than you may think, a better outcome resulted.

That is humility, having the maturity to realize that being patient and listening and working with others usually results in the best outcome, not using your position of authority to tell others what the solutions might be. With experience, you learn that your ‘obvious’ solutions are usually wrong.

By the way, Andy became one of my favorite managers in my division and, eventually, was promoted. Today, he is one of the top executives at his company.

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