With margins getting squeezed, clients asking for more while paying less, and competition from all corners, it could be kind of easy these days to scrimp when it comes to ethics. Are you?

When was the last time you read through the American Staffing Association Code of Ethics and Good Practices? Have you ever read it? Does it mean anything to you?

I began thinking about the subject when I recently read a story about a young woman, new to an area, and looking for a job. She saw an advertisement for an administrative assistant position, called the number listed and made an appointment.

When she arrived at the office where the interview was to take place though, she realized she wasn't at a job interview. Instead, she was at an employment services agency. Its representatives mentioned nothing about the advertised position, but they did tell her if she forked over $300 they would “guarantee” her a job.

Of course this is not common practice in the industry, by any stretch, but a Google search confirms this scenario has taken place in lots of places.

In this particular case I mentioned, the woman did eventually find a job through a temporary placement service and she didn't pay anything.

Reputable agencies go to work on behalf of the employee, right? And no one is probably ever in a position to guarantee that you can find a job for every candidate that walks in the door.

So where does the ethics conversation come in?

“Every business leader these days is obviously looking at maximizing value,” Stephen Young, global executive director of the business ethics organization Caux Round Table told me.

“You have to look at profit as an intermediate point towards ‘capital value.’ And we’re not just talking about financial capital, but also human capital and social capital and reputational capital. If you look at all of those capital accounts, and figure out how you are going to increase the value of your company, then all of a sudden you are thinking about your customers and clients and employees in a whole new way.”

Young, who is also the former assistant dean of the Harvard Law School says it’s all “part of a package.” That acting morally, ethically,  responsibly, with a thoughtfulness for the future is a deliberate behavior.

And he says the financial crisis that has caused this country so much pain – and money – made lots of people realize the pitfalls of focusing on short-term profits. He said in turn it has also made creating ethics conversations easier.

“For years we had to be kind of on the defensive about what we do. ‘Oh, you work on business ethics, you wrote a book on moral capitalism, who cares? The world is run by the smart and the greedy and the tricky.’ But people do care now.”

Tags: Advice, ASA, Ethics, Harvard, Scams, Stephen Young