To Be or Not To Be Ethical

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Sumaira Dada

Sumaira Dada is an independent education management professional.

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Vol 5 - Issue 4   To be or not to be EthicalThis final article is by no means a conclusion on work ethics. There will still be many ethical dilemmas at work that will continue to trouble us. That in itself is a good sign. “Why?” you might ask. Because when these dilemmas stop troubling us, it means we no longer care about being ethical.

When our concern about being honest and truthful and the urge to control the waves of jealousy start to ebb, it is only the Quran and Hadeeth that bring us to our senses. Social pressures can be overwhelming at times, especially if you are living in a country which is regarded among the most corrupt in the world.

Whilst writing these articles, I have also learnt to identify the tugs of Nafs (desires) and ways to control it, Alhamdulillah. To be fair to others, to meet deadlines and to deliver good quality work seem to be contradictory goals most of the time. One is tempted to cut corners to quicken the pace of work – it is only in these very moments that the Quran and Hadeeth come to my rescue. Facts from our pious predecessors’ lives also keep us from floundering in the morass of confusion by making the right and the wrong very clear. Although we can barely reach the standards of God-consciousness (Taqwah) that they have set, their lives do tell us that you can be an ordinary human being and yet have high ethical standards.

Early Muslims and modern corporations

I am reminded of an incident from Mohammad Ibn Sirin’s (rta) life. He was a trader and a retailer, who once bought olive oil worth forty thousand Dirhams. On examination, he found a dead rat in one of the containers. He felt doubtful about the quality of oil in the entire consignment and chose to dump it, instead of risking people’s health. Consequently, he was unable to pay the forty thousand Dirhams and as a result, spent time behind bars. There were no case studies written on his level of honesty and the standards of business ethics he had set; yet, in his time, he was greatly trusted and admired, and we read about him to this day.

Ibn Sirin’s (rta) incident reminds me of the “Johnson and Johnson” “Tylenol” case. The company had aggressively marketed a brand of pain-relieving capsules (“Tylenol”), which accounted for 18% of the company’s income and had 37% percent of the market share. However, in 1982 after the death of seven people, it was found that the capsules were laced with cyanide. The company chose to recall ALL “Tylenol” bottles, facing a loss of up to $100 million (not including the damage to the brand and loss of public confidence). Nevertheless, this very decision put the company in the limelight, and it was hailed as an ethical firm. Within just six months, “Tylenol” regained its market share!

Another well-known personality from our pious predecessors is Imam Bukhari, who set such high standards of honesty that he did not even want to change his intention for greater worldly gains. Once, a group of traders offered to buy a consignment from him for a profit, which was double of what was offered to him by another trader the previous evening. He chose to forego the second offer in favour of the earlier one, because he had already intended to deal with them.

What do people say?

A young executive in his twenties, Murtaza, is of the opinion that truthfulness and success go together. According to him, if one is untruthful, word gets around which results in a bad reputation. At the same time, he believes that most people are myopic and prefer short-term gains over long term benefits. He names his father as one of the most ethical people he has come across.

The opinion voiced above reminded me once again of Muhammad Ibn Sirin (rta). Maimoon Ibn Mehran narrates that before completing a transaction, Ibn Sirin (rta) always asked his customer thrice, whether he was satisfied. He was so careful about his dealings that Maimoon exclusively purchased from him. While modern management would put this down as an excellent example of customer relationship management; it all boils down to plain honesty.

The head of research in a well-known Islamic financial services firm says that if you are unethical, you are definitely unsuccessful. He names one of his senior colleagues in the industry as ethical as well as successful. Still, he was also of the opinion that to reach the topmost level, one does have to compromise a little bit. This view was contrary to the opinion held by a chief executive of a business concern. When I asked him to name a few ethical and successful people, he immediately came up with three managing directors of local and multinational firms.

There are also people, who are ethical but have been unsuccessful monetarily. According to a female employee of an audit firm, even if people have managed to pull it off for some time using unethical practices, in the long-term they finally have to show performance, especially if they are chosen for an international assignment. Her role model is Syedah Aisha (rta), who was confident, full of energy and interacted with men within the limits set by Shariah.

Ayesha, who has worked in a part-time position, comes up with two people whom she believes to be ethical and successful. One of them is a scholar who was able to bring about positive change in a locality. Another person is a medical doctor as well as a Hakeem, who is charitable and closely follows the Sunnah. According to Ayesha, unethical people are often successful too, but their success is limited to this world only.

To be unethical is useless…

It is important not to be weighed down by what the cynics and skeptics say. Being unethical would not give us anything more than what has been destined for us. In a Hadeeth narrated by Jabir (rta), we learn that the Prophet (sa) addressed people saying that they should fear Allah (swt) and act decently in acquiring their livelihood, for no man would die until he obtains his provision, even if it involves some delay. The Prophet (sa) reiterated that people should fear Allah (swt), earn their livelihood by lawful means and stay away from the forbidden. (Ibn Majah)

Therefore, unethical dealings do not give us any more of the worldly gains that have been written for us. Such an attitude merely creates a ‘lose-lose’ situation: losing out in this world and, most definitely, losing out in the Hereafter. Now, who would want that?

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