Ethics Versus Profits

Like many first-time entrepreneurs, I couldn't resist the excitement of finally taking the plunge. The trepidation was easily overcome with exuberance and the promise of a million-dollar evaluation.

I had been working for others for around fifteen years prior to starting the business. My experience was mostly in operations in some very well-known and respected organizations in the sunrise telecom industry. But the thoughts of leaving a legacy and of making a “dent in the universe” were always at the back of my mind.

Apple, Facebook, Microsoft, and Oracle were the classic examples of how an “idea” could become a global phenomenon. Around this time, while working overseas, I met someone who would later become a colleague. He had an idea which seemed very attractive, and an investor who was willing to back it up with some start-up cash. I was going to be paid a salary, but I would also have “sweat equity.” It was a sweet deal by any standard.

Trepidation was overcome with the promise of million-dollar evaluation

I brought much-needed operational expertise and contacts to the table. I left a well-paying and large organization to take the plunge. I was going to be responsible for the operations, including the nurturing of new accounts and the “generating” revenues. We set up shop and hired some staff to get the ball rolling.

We secured our first client and launched the venture. A few clients followed shortly. Within months, we were already at a significant monthly turnover primarily because the service we offered was unique and quickly became popular. Our service soon started gaining the attention of our clients and competitors.

However, the customer base did not grow at the estimated rate, and this caused a money crunch. Being at the leadership position that I was, the onus of extracting the maximum revenue from the customer base rested on my shoulders. Thoughts of potential failure, business growth, fame, and fortune gripped my mind night and day. Encouraged by the talk of using unethical means to maximise profit since “all businesses do it,” I came up with ideas on how to “skim” from customers who were using our service and had placed their trust in us.

Our revenues grew significantly because of that skimming. My team and I received salary hikes. It felt good to be able to afford things I couldn’t earlier. However, something did not feel right. Whenever there was the talk of corruption, something pinched me on the inside. I was no longer happy. I could no longer hold my head up. Even though we were all equally responsible for participating in, and benefitting from, this white-collar crime, I felt burdened by guilt and shame.

The situation reached a turning point when I had a chance meeting with one of our customers. This person did not know that I was part of the organization. He was very upset that the service he liked using was skimming his hard-earned money — money that he couldn’t easily afford to spend. When I shared this experience with the principals of the organization, they asked me to ignore the moral pangs and gave many justifications for continuing as we were.

I had a difficult choice to make - suck it up or walk away

I had by then realised that I had a difficult choice to make – to either walk away from this start-up that I’d help grow or to suck it up and continue doing something that was eating me up on the inside. My family and I discussed this, and we reached a decision. I decided to return the money I had earned through ill-gotten means directly to the customers and resign from the organization.

Walking away from the company after the years I had spent with it was tough. I had helped build the company and not all of it was rotten. But I realised that this had to be a clean break if I wanted to hold my head high before my family, the industry I worked in, and most importantly, myself.

Many of us face similar dilemmas in our professional life. Encounters that help us see the truth — or that still, small voice that reminds us to do the right thing — and might seem accidental are anything but. I learned to pay attention to them, and I am happy I did.

If you’re at a such a moral crossroad, you’re not alone. We want to talk to you. You can use the form below to get in touch.

Author's name abbreviated for privacy.
Photo Credit Chinmay Singh

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