Business Ethics in Arboriculture

What does it mean to operate a good, professional business? What role does ethics play in everyday business?

Professionalism and ethics are two words that are seemingly important to many individuals, and yet, in our behavior, we often, unconsciously or perhaps deliberately, overlook these very important interpersonal attributes. From a business perspective, ethics are guidelines used when interacting inside and outside the company. But often they are missing in many business models, because ethics isn’t typical content in your organization’s employee handbook.

Ethics is the science of conduct and has been a topic of philosophers for more than 2,500 years, since Socrates and Plato. “Ethics” comes from the Greek word “ethos,” which is the distinguishing character, moral nature or guiding belief of a person, group or institution. Ethics is the standard by which most Americans, and many others, measure their own behavior and that of other people, groups of people and institutions. We think of ethics as the principles that guide our behavior toward making the best choices that contribute to the common good of those around us.

Group of arborists sit around a table talking about ethics.
Some say ethics can be taught, while others say it depends upon how a person was raised.

A code of ethics is what guides us to tell the truth, keep our promises, take responsibility for our actions and offer mutual respect for others. There is a framework of ethics underlying our lives daily, helping us make decisions that create positive impacts and steering us away from unjust outcomes. The decision to behave ethically is guided by our internal moral compass. The salient point is that your moral compass can only point you in the right direction, it can’t make you go there. Ethics is a learned quality and is chosen throughout one’s life, every day.

Ethics in business is just as important as ethics in personal life. Business leaders have a unique role and a great responsibility in shaping the ethical culture of their businesses and thereby influencing their broader communities as well. For us as arborists, this translates to being an arborist distinguished by our character and our guiding beliefs as they relate to planting, maintaining and caring for trees; behaving as a professional arborist by our decision-making principles guided by our moral nature; and becoming a better arborist, not just in practice but ethically.

Ethical business involves recognizing right from wrong, making the right choices and being consistent about the principles that guide your behavior in every situation. Business leaders are under tremendous pressure and, at times, may face very significant ethical challenges. When placed in a compromising situation or challenging ethical business dilemma, you enter a crossroad that requires you to analyze the situation and decide, and hopefully it is a good, ethical, correct decision that positively contributes to the common good of all those around you. Ethics shouldn’t be compromised or confused with success or achievement in business performance. Ethical business is about acting without bias in your business activities, consistently.  (Graphic 1)

Graphic table that talks about ethics in the arboriculture industry, past and present.
Graphic 1, by Lindsey Purcell and Kayleigh Vogel.

Care for customers, both kinds…

We all recognize the importance of taking care of the external customer – the people who purchase our products and services. They are often seen as the most important part of our business and our very livelihood. However, successful organizations equally recognize the importance of taking care of the internal customer – the people who work on behalf of your organization, your staff and employees.

The client or “external customer” is easy when making the determination if they are satisfied with the work. As we all know, they can be very emphatic at times – both good and bad. But it can be challenging to determine if the “internal customer” is happy. Taking the temperature of company morale is a constant practice. For example, you may ask yourself, “How are the crews doing?” or even more important, “What is their tenure going to be here at my shop?”

I recommend, as a former manager and supervisor of a tree care company, to take time as the leader in your company to witness crew activity each morning or evening silently, subtly and respectfully in the shop or in the office. This occasional look-in will provide the opportunity to listen to and observe your employees’ language, actions and relational qualities. Do observations indicate respect, courtesy and care, or do they demonstrate careless, rude, lying, harassing and offensive behavior toward each other? These are key indicators of potential issues that also may be occurring outside the shop, which proves to be even more awkward for business.

Internal customers are a direct link to the external customers and the quality of product or service received. Ethical culture with the internal customers is important, because delivery of a great product begins with them! The supply chain starts even with the receptionist who answers phone calls and is often the face of your company, to the crew, the branch manager, the sales representative and to every person in the supply chain. If the culture is broken or less productive internally, imagine what the external customer is seeing and experiencing on the job site. Consider how your own and your employees’ behavior impacts every aspect of your business.

Ideas for creating and keeping an ethical workplace

Training for ethics

When a company gets a new hire, is it too late to talk about ethics, to train for it? Or is it just an unspoken expectation? According to a few business experts I follow, ethics can be taught, while some say it depends upon how a person was raised. Can they distinguish between being morally right and ethically wrong? Business psychologists today say that ethics consist of knowing what we should do in sticky situations, especially at work, and that that concept can be taught, in most cases.

Communicating ethical expectations

Owners, managers and supervisors set the tone when they talk about doing the right thing consistently with staff.  Communicate clearly, consistently and frequently the desired behaviors and why they are important to the organization. It is an easier task to train on what to do as opposed to telling employees what not to do; by then, usually the damage has been done. When discussing ethics and behavior, be clear in your language, message and expectations to leave less room for interpretation unintentionally.

The company culture, whether it is ethics, safety or any other attribute, begins with the boss and flows downhill. Subsequently, leadership often has the greatest responsibility and visibility on the job. It can’t be said enough that one of the best ways to implement and ensure ethical business practices is a “top-down” approach. Those at the top of a company are often seen as role models for other employees, and if they are acting in a way that is unethical, the lower-level employees will likely follow suit.

A challenging business dilemma can place you in an ethical crossroad.

Certainly senior staff are important, but they often only talk to each other, not to the crew and other staff. Ethics should be a regular conversation in any training event. It should be inclusive with all ranks involved in the discussion, which makes everyone feel like an important, confident part of the team. Remember, a leader’s consistency between their words and actions speaks loudest. You cannot expect your staff to “do what you say and not what you do,” as they are watching you and modeling your behavior.

Whether facing minor quandaries or major problems, you should constantly raise the question, “What do our organizational values tell us about how to handle these decisions?” That makes ethics very real and tangible, especially if those values are in place and discussed regularly. But how do you keep the ethical ship afloat? In other words, once the concept becomes an integral component of your organization’s mission and goals, how do you keep the momentum?

“Atta boy” moments

Exemplary behavior should be recognized and can be used as a teaching moment. This builds the team and the image of the company and creates loyalty within the crew and staff. Kudos are good for everyone and not just those who receive them. It creates aspiration in others for positive attention and recognition. This is the best way to build people and retain long-term employees. Discussions with former students and early career professionals distill their discontent to issues such as inconsistent policy; radical, unplanned changes; unclear company goals; and poor employee relations. This demonstrates a lack of ethical leadership. Bottom line, employees separate from their bosses, not their jobs.

Keeping them around

Retention and productivity can be increased by developing your team, personally and professionally. This is an investment in the person and employee. It provides the opportunity to discuss ethical concepts such as character and behavior. Ethics training is implemented and introduced but often dies on the vine, often because companies lack continuity in their training programs, stopping after a few months.

Long-term investments in training and development help encourage employees to stay with your company for the long haul. Frequent communication of desired behaviors, such as accountability, professionalism, honesty and respect – and why they are important to the organization – should be discussed with everyone, not just the new or lower-
level staff. You can only understand your organization’s goals and culture if you talk to everyone.

Sustainable growth, ethically

It has been proven that ethics-driven companies are more productive and sustainable.

When profit is viewed and embraced as the sole purpose of the company, it distorts and corrupts the whole process. However, corporate purpose built on quality relationships that are based on trust with customers and employees inspires the highest levels of ethical leadership and success. It is critical to hold people accountable for demonstrating ethical behaviors as discussed earlier, which raises the bar for excellence, safety and production. (Graphic 2)

Graphic table that walks through the process of implementing ethics in a business.
Graphic 2, by Lindsey Purcell and Kayleigh Vogel.

Conclusion

The idea of injecting ethics into our day-to-day interactions, at work and in our personal connections, creates a better world and workplace. It is evident that maintaining a professional and ethical mindset as individuals and organizations is vital for the future, our industry and our career. When companies set the tone with meaningful ethical standards, the result is a positive corporate culture where people want to go to a safe workplace and clients keep coming back. I was told many years ago that what is good to know is often the most difficult to learn. This certainly gives credibility to the ethical business challenges ahead of us and the need to instill and maintain an ethical practice in arboriculture.

Lindsey Purcell is an ISA Board Certified Master Arborist (BCMA), an American Society of Consulting Arborists (ASCA) registered consulting arborist (RCA) and principal with Lp Consulting Group, LLC, in Franklin, Indiana. He spent many years as an urban-forestry specialist in the Department of Forestry and Natural Resources at Purdue University, and currently serves as the executive director of the Indiana Chapter of the International Society of Arboriculture.

 This article was based on his presentation on the same topic at TCI EXPO ’21 in Indianapolis, Indiana. To listen to an audio recording of that presentation, go to tcimag.tcia.org and, under the Resources tab, click audios. Or, under the Current Issues tab, click View Digimag, then go to this page and click here.

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