Thursday, July 24, 2008

Keeping Your Ethics Afloat in Unfriendly Waters

More than two decades after immigrating to the U.S. my parents returned to Korea to establish a coffee chain. They were young when they first emigrated from South Korea and their formative business ventures were in the United States. So this was their first time doing business in a foreign country and, though they started life in Korea, the business conditions were unfriendly waters to them. In the post-war years, Korea rose rapidly to become the 11th largest economy in the world, but many corporate and social practices were still underdeveloped, especially in terms of ethics and moral obligation. My parents faced a system of commerce that was filled with graft; where sharks regularly swam across all industries.

I recall one situation very clearly to this day. My parents were trying to obtain a space in a major Korean department store. When the manager of the store made it clear he expected some money under the table, my parents stuck by their principles and didn’t give in to this “traditional” form of business in the department store industry. My father knew the supervisor several levels above this manager, but he didn’t want to play that card — at least not yet. My mother told the manager she would report him to his superiors. He was livid that someone would dare to say such a thing. The meeting ended abruptly and my parents returned to their office. After simmering on it for a few hours, my mother decided to address a letter explaining the situation to the local manager’s supervisor. Her employees freaked out.

“That’s not the Korean way, Mrs. Moon! You just don’t do that here… It won’t work!”

My mother replied, “There is no ‘Korean way’ — there is never only one way to do things. I will show you that you can change how things are done. Don’t limit your thinking!”

My mother prayed about the conflict, drafted the letter and my parents set another meeting with the local manager. I don’t know what the manager expected from them, but what he got was a stern warning and a promise. They showed him the letter, but also gave a promise that their coffee store would generate the most revenue for his division. Amazingly, he backed down from his demand for a bribe. My parents established their location in his store and it came to generate the most revenue for several years.

My parents’ employees were shocked at the turnaround. It was an incredibly rare occurrence to avoid the established order of business in Korea. They learned that change can come about in small ways by holding to the principles you decide to follow.

I learned too. Whether national culture or corporate culture and norms, my parents’ principled actions and evenhanded tactics taught me that change is always possible, even when the waves of tradition seem too strong to resist. One stand against those waves can disperse them and create ripples of positive change in a company, industry or nation.

Originally published at InsideWork

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