If business ethics refers to the goings on in the typical corporate world of cubicles and corner offices, where do we extend the practice to the online world?

It’s pretty ironic that Whole Foods—a brand synonymous with organic and wholesome foods and general “goodness”—would be the latest topic of an online business ethics debate. From 1999-2006, Whole Foods’ CEO John Mackey used a pseudonym in which he bashed Wild Oats, a competitor, on Yahoo!’s finance message board. Whole Foods has recently proposed to acquire Wild Oats, which has caused the message board scandal to come to light.

Was this Mackey’s way to boost his own brand, or are we dealing with deeper issues of business ethics? WOMMA, or the Word of Mouth Marketing Association, clearly dictates a cut and dry philosophy when it comes to blogging and online word of mouth. While Mackey’s comments were not necessarily “blog posts”, they still fall under the guideline of online communication and general word of mouth information. In fact, Mackey clearly violates the second rule of ethics on WOMMA’s website: “I will fully disclose who I am and who I work for (my identity and affiliations) from the very first encounter when communicating with bloggers or commenting on blogs.” WOMMA suggests configuring an ethics code that follows a basic business model of ethics.

It’s hard to think that Mackey was just trying to champion his own product, when his motives seem remarkably evident. Coming down on Wild Oats in an effort to lower their profits for an inevitable buy out violates all sorts of business ethics—whether online or off. Mackey obviously attempted to capitalize on the online world to maximize his company’s image and promote their products; in doing so, he violated a very simple code of ethics.

Despite what Mackey says did or did not happen (that he wasn’t representing the company, that he was sometimes playing the devil’s advocate, blah blah blah…) the entire situation raises the bigger issue of business ethics online. This crisis demonstrates the sheer ease with which anybody can create aliases and personas (if Second Life wasn’t already a bizarre indicator of that). As The New York Times put it “On the Internet nobody knows you’re a dog — or the chief executive of a Fortune 500 company.” But with this anonymity, where do ethics come in? With so many companies reaching out online to their potential consumers, it is crucial to perfect this new kind of Business Ethics 2.0.

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