Why Is Fair Play Good For Business?

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Why is Fair Play Good for Business?
Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash

Why Is ‘Fair Play’ Good For Business Owners?

Never have to cross the street to avoid someone

The best advice I received as a new startup was from a micro-business owner who ran a successful recruitment and temp agency in Milton Keynes. This was in the mid-eighties – that’s the 1980s for those who question which century I was born in. The business owner said: “I live, work and play in this community and I’ll never do anything which would mean I have to cross the street to avoid someone’.

He lived and worked in Milton Keynes and being respected by the whole community was the most powerful marketing tool for his business. It also made for a very happy life at work and at play. Positive word of mouth was more influential and lower cost than advertising, direct marketing, PR and employing salespeople.

Word of mouth rocks.

The majority of his candidates looking for a new job came to his agency first because someone in the community would say ‘You need to go and see Brian at Mayday’. In particular sectors, such as distribution, catering and engineering, every employer and every potential employee knew, from word of mouth, that Brian’s agency would have the best and most reliable talent available for a fair and transparent fee. He knew that every potential or new recruit or temp going into an employer’s premises was an ambassador for his business.

Brian’s business, just like the businesses I’ve owned since 1986, never had the massive marketing budgets to build a positive, customer and talent attracting reputation but achieved it through consistent acts of honesty, integrity, quality and authenticity – fair play.

In last month’s long-read article, I mentioned three incredibly successful business owners I’ve known – Kanya King CBE, Charlie Mullins OBE and Sir Jim Ratcliffe – all have a reputation, earned over decades, for integrity, honesty and a ‘fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay’. You only need to talk to their loyal, long-serving staff, customers and suppliers to understand how important to their business and brand their personal reputation is.

Does integrity matter in business?

“In show business the keyword is honesty. Once you’ve learned how to fake that – the rest is easy”. (George Burns)

Most people, including Donald Trump and Boris Johnson, would claim to have ‘integrity’. just as much as most would claim they are positive thinkers, trustworthy, nice people and good car drivers. But in business, many people have a different notion of integrity in their actions with employees, customers and suppliers than they would in their actions with family and friends.

I had a business colleague once who would justify reneging on deals, delaying payment, going back on their word and making life unbearable for an unpopular employee as ‘it’s only business‘. Surely the ‘it’s only business’ or ‘it’s only politics’ or ‘it’s only the job’ excuse for not playing fair is the way most people square their personal integrity with often ruthless, hurtful behaviour at work. They hang up their personal values along with their coat when they enter the workplace.

Most large corporations and governments prefer the illusion of integrity, trustworthiness and ‘fair play’ rather than embedding integrity into their culture and demonstrating it daily by the consistent actions of their employees. Business owners need not copy them.

It is our choice as employees freelancers, contractors, customers, suppliers and business owners as to whether or not we work with or for organisations which bully, exploit, denigrate and steal. Our financial circumstances often dictate we have to reluctantly accept money from wherever it is offered. What is likely, though, is that most of us will stop working with those that do not meet our values just as soon as we can afford to. Business owners, like me, are the luckiest as we can get to the position where we choose our clients, customers, suppliers and colleagues.

It is only 8 years ago that I stopped working for an organisation I’d founded because I could no longer live with myself running the banks and government-funded training programmes to support #startups and small business owners. In my research-based opinion, the programmes were not based on best practice and I felt they were politically motivated rather than making the survive and thrive interests of the business owner the priority.

I was lucky enough to have a family and business partners who understood why I would take both an income hit and no longer be invited to the influential policy formulating forums with the usual suspects. I’m sure that Capita, G4S, Atos, Maximus, Virgin and the rest of the major government outsourcers just wouldn’t understand my view that fair play meant the users of the programme had to come first, not the government’s targets and spin.

Making a positive difference or getting away with it?

I’ve written before that the starkest contrast I’ve ever seen on happiness and motivation between some large corporate employees and a business owner-led company was at our annual #MicroBizMatters Day. Pimlico Plumbers’ employees were thoroughly enjoying their day and their work but our corporate sponsors’ employees were pretending to be positive. Pimlico Plumbers staff, customers and suppliers love them. They know exactly where they stand and they know and most meet every one of Charlie Mullins and his family’s values.

Many large corporations and institutions work less on the basis of values and customer delight and more on making as much money in any way they can. That’s why the bosses of some of the largest companies don’t know or care what their managers, salespeople, brokers, dealers and contractors do to make the money – they’re happy for them to do what they can get away with.

How else would our largest supermarkets and largest construction companies justify 75 to 120 days ‘take it or leave it’ supplier payment terms? How else would our biggest financial services, big pharma and big tobacco companies continue mis-selling until they are caught and then they settle – time after time?

How else would our largest digital platforms continue stealing millions of personal data, despite ever-increasing legislation? How else would the world’s largest employers, such as Amazon and McDonald’s allow their employees to sink to even worse levels of poverty, stress and depression?

How else would banks knowingly enable wars, corporate tax evasion, environmental destruction, poverty and depression? How else would Government Ministers blatantly lie to the public in order to retain and increase their power and wealth?

There’s no way I’m going to persuade these large corporations, institutions and governments that ‘fair play’ makes business sense but I can persuade some of their leaders and ALL business owners that it is. Fair play gets you the best and most loyal talent, employees, suppliers and customers. Fair play leads to more sustainable brands, organisations and fulfilled lives.

Manipulation or motivation?

Fair play costs a fraction of the marketing budget it takes to spin the illusion of corporate integrity. In fact, if you haven’t got a massive marketing budget, including you personal integrity into your brand, is the only, guaranteed way to build a loyal and motivated network of customers, suppliers and employees/colleagues.

As I’m sure my best business leader role model Tim Campbell MBE, the first The Apprentice Winner, and my best employer role model, Henry Stewart (Mr Happy of Happy Computer Training and other businesses in the Happy Group), would attest, treating employees, customers and suppliers as fairly as you treat family and friends is just the best and most fulfilling way of living life as a business owner. Empowering people is always more likely to make them go the extra mile than controlling or manipulating them

I regard my family and friends as far more important than business and wealth creation. We all have to make ends meet but surely exploitation and manipulation are not ‘necessary evils’ in business? I blame Edward Bernays for the fact that the spin and manipulation way of building reputations and wealth is more prevalent in business than the fair play way.

Who pulls the strings?

Edward Bernays is the father of Public Relations. He established it as a key marketing discipline for governments, presidential candidates, large corporations, institutions and trade bodies. He first came to prominence in the mid-1920s by persuading American citizens to join the military and enter World War 1. This was not a popular idea in America as most had recently left Europe.

Bernay’s ‘Make the world safe for democracy’ campaign has been used by every American president, since President Woodrow Wilson adopted it, to justify war having a higher purpose. You can also thank Bernays for the full heavy breakfast continuing to this day. He persuaded the medical authorities, through a survey of GPs, to say that a ‘heavy breakfast’ with bacon and eggs a central part, was good for you. He was working for a bacon manufacturer whose sales soared. Through suggesting cigarettes were a better option than sweets and his ‘torches for freedom’ campaign, conflating the right to smoke in public with equality, he persuaded tens of millions of American women to start smoking or smoke more.

His famous book of 1928 ‘Propaganda’ makes the case for ‘psychological warfare’ or ‘the engineering of consent’. He later renamed ‘psychological warfare’ to the more palatable, ‘public relations’ and stated ‘the conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in a democratic society.

Business owners can make it a better world

I mention Edward Bernays because, like most corporate leaders and government ministers, he would laugh at my attempt through this article to persuade business owners that ‘fair play is good for business’.

Bernays would never even regard the CEO of the large corporation, President e.g Donald Trump, and the Prime Minister, eg Boris Johnson as being the prime manipulators of the masses for increased wealth and power. Bernays said, – “Our minds are moulded largely by men we have never heard of”.

My point is that most of us as business owners start and run our own business to control our own destiny and to break free from the ‘system’. As business owners and leaders, we can have values which every employee, supplier and customer can understand. We can treat employees, customers and suppliers as we want to be treated. We can play fair. This is why EF Schumacher in ‘Small is Beautiful said: “In small scale enterprise private ownership is natural, fruitful and just”.

Start with paying fair

If you want to grow your business through positive word of mouth then nothing will work faster and more sustainably than your customers, suppliers, contractors and employees saying great things about you and your business.

Rather like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and Herzberg’s hygiene factors, there are some things you can do which will have the ‘wow’ factor but everyone in the network (staff, customers and suppliers) needs to be paid on time for a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay in an environment where their talent and initiative are utilised, encouraged and recognised.

Everyone can use Pimlico Plumbers massive, state of the art gym 24/7 and it is staffed by personal trainers but if the plumbers weren’t handsomely compensated for providing the best quality, fastest, cleanest, most cost-effective service 24/7 with transparent pricing, the gym would be a white elephant.

Government and large corporations conspire to make prompt payment against 60 days payment terms totally acceptable whereas I try to persuade all businesses that #PayIn30Days is the maximum and that large companies 45 to 120 days ‘take it or leave it’ terms, which cripple small and micro business owners, is theft. Many business owners I know will pay as soon as they can, some immediately on presentation of the invoice.

The time is now

At any time, any business of any size can choose to earn respect. But it is a longer-term investment which is why ‘start as you mean to go on’ is much easier and influential than trying to build a reputation for integrity in an established big business which threw the moral compass away years ago.

Fortunately, there are still many very large corporations that have retained the values of their original owners or are still family or business owner led to show that integrity, trust, honesty and fair play can be massive assets. If you’re interested in sustainability, then I believe there is overwhelming evidence that these ‘fair play’ assets, these core values with your employees, customers and suppliers are fundamental to ‘staying in the game’.

Gaining a reputation for fair play is the most cost-effective marketing for any business. An added bonus is that you and your organisation can then be proudly displayed, recognised and promoted on my Small is Beautiful Roll of Honour.


The next monthly long-read article will be published on August 20th, entitled “Why we can learn most about leadership from sport?”

More Tony Robinson OBE links and advice

Advice, Tips and Information from the MicroBiz ChampSmall is Beautiful
roll of Honour
Monthly Musing of the microBiz Champ

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