American Business Began in The Wild West
by Phyllis Davis
Business ethics and etiquette, the dynamic duo of workplace decorum, have been my companions for an impressive 40-year journey as an author, speaker, and corporate trainer. Picture me as the Sherlock Holmes of polite business conduct, navigating the intricate web of manners, ethics, and shifting trends since the disco era. I’ve traveled over three million air miles and met many people on my journeys.
When I began in the early 1970s, the business landscape resembled the American Wild West. Business standards were as elusive as a tumbleweed in the desert. In those days, people operated on church manners or political protocol; formalities depended more on personal beliefs than any universally accepted business code.
My entry into this uncharted territory wasn’t driven by a gold rush but by the desire to understand and navigate the evolving landscape of American business culture. In those early days, handshakes were often considered more binding than contracts. Picture a scene straight out of an old Western film, where trust was earned over time, like a rancher proving the mettle of their word through deeds rather than legal jargon.
As the years unfolded, so did the complexities of the business world. The downfall of giants like Enron and Worldcom shook the foundations of trust in corporate America. Business executives in the two companies went to jail for decades for their greed and financial scandals. I covered the sordid details while on a national media tour in 2001 and appeared on all the television networks, radio, and print media. The business landscape was changing rapidly, and a realization dawned: relying solely on church manners or political etiquette was no longer sufficient. Businesses needed a more robust ethical framework, and the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 was passed by the U.S. Congress that year to help protect investors from fraudulent financial reporting by corporations.
Cue the entry of formal business standards. With each scandal, each fall from grace, the call for ethical guidelines grew louder. Companies realized the importance of establishing norms transcending individual beliefs and political affiliations. The Wild West was getting its first taste of law and order, albeit in the form of business ethics and etiquette.
Fast forward to the pandemic era, when the tectonic plates of the business world underwent a seismic shift. Remote work became the norm, Zoom calls replaced boardroom meetings, and the traditional office dynamics were upended. The ‘new normal’ forced businesses to reevaluate their practices, adapt to virtual communication, and, in the process, rethink the very essence of business ethics and etiquette.
In the unfolding drama of March 2020, a staggering 1.7 billion individuals worldwide bid farewell to their office spaces, thrust into an unforeseen reality dictated by the omnipresent force of COVID-19. Within a week, this seismic shift ballooned to engulf 3.9 billion people, constituting over half of the globe’s population. The wheels of commerce screeched to a sudden halt, catching company leaders off guard and ill-equipped for the unprecedented challenges ahead.
Having witnessed this evolution over four decades, I can confidently say that the pandemic has catalyzed significant workplace changes. The upheavals of the last two years have forced businesses to reassess their values, communication strategies, managerial styles, and overall workplace culture. It’s been a trial by fire, a crucible where the enduring principles of ethics and etiquette have been tested and reshaped.
In this ever-shifting landscape, where the ghosts of Enron and Worldcom still linger, the need for a comprehensive understanding of business ethics and etiquette has never been more critical. It’s a journey that spans decades, from the simplicity of handshake deals to the intricacies of modern remote work.
Join me as we explore American business conduct’s past, present, and future, sprinkled with a touch of humor and seasoned with the wisdom gleaned from years of traversing this fascinating landscape.