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Ethical behavior in business and life is its own reward

To say Bill Daniels has an ostentatious house would be to say the Grand Canyon is a nice little ditch. Referred to by some as the father of cable television, Daniels has left little doubt about his love for the medium.

His home theater is a Thanksgiving buffet for the entertainment starved. One wall is covered with 64 small screens, each showing a different cable channel. Speakers are built into the upholstery of the two sofas in the room. This is so people watching movies on the big screen against the far wall can feel, as well as hear, the action.It is excess, yes. But it is not the kind of excess that should breed contempt. No one was cheated in Daniels' rise to fortune. Daniels built the house - one of several he owns - on a foundation of ethical business practices, and he has a message that Utahns, and all Americans, ought to hear.

Utahns already should be familiar with Daniels - at least those old enough to remember the Utah Stars of the American Basketball Association. Daniels owned the team when it, and the league, went out of business. He lost a lot of his fortune in that deal - money that took four years to regain. But once he had it back, he knew what he had to do. He returned to Salt Lake City and began paying what he owed to former season ticket holders, vendors and other creditors who had financial stakes in a team that suddenly disappeared.

He even paid the players. At an ABA reunion last summer, former Stars player John Beasley told reporters how surprised he was when Daniels began sending him monthly checks years after the team folded.

The remarkable thing, of course, is that Daniels wasn't forced by a court order to pay these people. No one threatened him or even expected him to act. He had no family ties in Utah, no intimate contacts with whom he had to save face. He simply felt it was the right thing to do.

The right thing. That is an elusive concept in all areas of life. It zips past the law and aims directly for a person's character. And in business, where contracts and profit margins are king, or in politics, where campaign-finance laws and rules governing openness are seen as impediments, it is a concept often overlooked.

I was invited to Daniels' home recently along with other members of the national board of the Society of Professional Journalists. Six years ago, Daniels helped start the annual Colorado Ethics in Business Awards, which honors companies, organizations and business people in the state who exemplify ethical conduct and social responsibility - people who manage to transcend the board room tidal wave of profits and ledgers. We were invited there to hear why we should do more to encourage ethical behavior in our own states.

Of all the arguments we heard that evening, one was particularly persuasive. It came from University of Denver Chancellor Dan Ritchie, who said ethical business people tend to be more prosperous in the long run than unethical ones. A graduate of the Harvard Business School, he noticed this among his classmates as the years went by. While the act of cheating, together with its less noticeable cousin, rule-bending, may pay well for a season, a poor reputation eventually turns into a debilitating lead weight.

Unfortunately, the trend is for more people to learn this the hard way.

A recent survey found that 57 percent of America's workers feel more pressure to be unethical than they did five years ago. That pressure comes from employers as well as from the need to balance work with family. Nearly half admitted, anonymously, to being unethical at some time during the past year, mostly by cutting corners on quality control. Nearly 10 percent admitted lying to customers, while 5 percent lied to their superiors about significant matters.

In Utah, auditing firms say they have begun finding evidence of fraud more frequently, news that ought to disturb anyone who ever acts as customer or client.

As a counterweight to this, associations and trade groups are turning to codes of ethics. New federal sentencing guidelines make it easier for employees to report wrongdoing by their bosses. And people are trying to reward ethical behavior. Last Thursday, the Denver group held a luncheon and gave out awards to businesses it felt were extraordinary ethical. Soon the Better Business Bureau will give out its annual Ethics in Business awards in Utah.

But while all of these are helpful, they don't do much to encourage individuals to return the extra change a clerk gives them by accident at the grocery store or to leave a note on the windshield of a car that was newly dented. Ethical behavior is a way of life. It is woven into the fabric of a person's character. It comes from a desire to do the right thing. And as Daniels has shown, it is its own reward.