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Balancing ethics, profits poses challenge

Can business people be both successful and ethical?

Does the legalistic "truth in advertising" really mean the whole truth?And whose responsibility is it to unearth the full story on services and goods -- the company or the consumer?

These and other questions were raised and pondered, although not necessarily resolved, during a panel discussion Wednesday titled "Business as Usual: The Thoughtful Allocation of Community Resources."

Taking part were Bob Immitt, president of CIGNA Health Care of Utah; Amy Wadsworth, principal at Wasatch Elementary School; Josie Valdez, assistant director of the Small Business Administration; and ethicist Jay Jacobson. The discussion at the Salt Lake Art Center was moderated by John Schaefer, director of the Children's Media Workshop.

"How can a business communicate truth in advertising?" asked Immitt. "There's just so much you can say in a 30-second spot or a small ad, so you try to put your best foot forward. You can't tell the whole story in such a short method. The buyer has the responsibility to learn more about your business."

However, he later said business people must be willing to take the risk of doing what is right even if it might hurt them temporarily in the marketplace. Yes, businesses must profit to stay alive, but the bottom line can't determine everything, he said.

"You have to make sure there's an appropriate balance between the process and the outcome," Immitt said.

Schaefer said one thing that disturbs him as director of the Children's Media Workshop is that he has seen so many youngsters with a complete lack of critical thinking skills -- which would prevent them from separating exaggerations or misleading information from accurate data in business advertising.

"There is a real confusion. If we don't have skeptical children, they'll come home with the Brooklyn Bridge every day," he said.

School principal Wadsworth said adults, too, seem to be lacking critical thinking skills, which she attributed to a society packed with rapid-fire visual images and blips of information. "Sound bites are the way of the world."

Valdez said that new small business owners often are so overwhelmed that survival rather than ethics is foremost in their minds. One thing they must do when getting SBA financing is put in writing that they have "good character," but Valdez said this is impossible to measure in the same way that the SBA can check financial soundness or managerial experience.

"The government assumes that when small business people come to them for services they have good character, but it is never defined," she said.

Ethicist Jacobson said business people often can be motivated to really pay attention to ethics when it is pointed out to them that it is in their best interests to conduct their firms and themselves in an ethical fashion.

The theater that sells expensive show tickets but neglects to tell customers that some of them have blocked views of the stage will eventually lose customers, he said.

The discussion was part of a series of talks presented each Wednesday in June from noon to 1 p.m. at the Salt Lake Art Center.