No, I'm not advocating for 'creative' business ethics. That's what lawyers are for. I'm looking to talk about business (and personal!) ethics in the creative/design industry. Although the former certainly pays better, the latter usually leaves more of your soul intact.
Ethics in a Nebulous Industry
One of the greatest challenges for uniform ethics in our industry is how comparably un-tamed and un-standardized the field is. Whereas medicine, law, and many 'standard' business fields have very recognizable and enforceable standards, creative work has always been more nebulous. Some argue this lack of distinction is inherent, and we can never be completely clear of it. Others adamantly state that the industry itself deliberately muddles and frustrates any attempts at definition and regulation. Like, how can you label creativity, man?
Even if you're one of those free spirits who would rather never see an enforceable, universal standard in the industry, it's pretty hard to deny that a lot of successful groups and individuals have their own professional code of conduct they follow. The way you interact with your clients, the reliability of your services, and their confidence in the value you provide becomes a part of your brand and your reputation. Even if you don't have a clearly defined list thumb-tacked to your office wall, as long as you are consistent in your approach to your business relationships, you're following your own code of business ethics.
Business Ethics Benefit YOU
Often, you hear about ethics as a protection for the recipient of a transaction. We have business, legal, and medical ethical practices to make sure that big organizations don't screw over the little guy. While this is still the base reason behind following good ethics on a smaller scale, the benefits to you as a business are many-fold as well! When your word of mouth advertising includes props for being friendly, accessible, and true to your word, that word of mouth is going to travel much farther.
I've had contacts in the industry who do downright AMAZING work, but scrimp on their ethical self-standards. These men and women can design whole branding campaigns in the blink of an eye. They can develop sites that make their competition look like DOS based software. What ultimately becomes their undoing, however, is a lack of ethical practices with their clients. Now, some of this behavior can be written off as simple inexperience in freelancing. Even in a lot of those cases, however, these particular folks should have known better. Sometimes I know for a fact they did, but thought they could play the ethics game for a wider profit margin.
Examples of these unethical behaviors can vary greatly by which specific industry we're discussing. Your client has very little technical understanding of a website, so you can easily explain away issues or lack-luster 'features'. They don't understand the value of specific services you offer, so it becomes easy to assure them they need everything, at a premium price. That design isnt' 'quite' right, for the third time, but you ran some (imaginary) A/B testing that favored the draft you just want them to settle on.
No one is perfect, but these little things can pile up quickly. Before you know it, you're on the run just to stay ahead of the backlash. Maybe someone who knew what they were talking about set your client straight. Once they knew something was up, they reached out to others you have worked for. Before you know it, little short cuts in each project can bring the whole thing crashing down on you.
When you sit back at the end of the day and take stock of what you've built, make sure you weigh the ethics of how you got there. Good ethics will not only propel you farther, but they will ensure that nothing insidious is waiting to sneak up on you from behind either. Play it straight and work hard. No matter what industry you're in, there's no quick success guarantee.