It is one of Shakespeare’s great ironies that he entrusts this often-quoted statement to the lying, twisted, immoral Iago.
“Who steals my purse steals trash; ’tis something, nothing;
‘Twas mine, ’tis his, and has been slave to thousands;
But he that filches from me my good name
Robs me of that which not enriches him,
And makes me poor indeed”
(Othello Act III)
For, regardless of his own morality and despite the iniquity of his behaviour towards Othello (of whom he is so jealous that he can only lash out and wound him, goading him to murder his faithful wife), he speaks the truth. There is little more precious than our reputation.
Trust is often first based on reputation: relationships on trust. And this, surely, accounts in part for the tragedies of the Savile case. Had he not had his reputation for being a good man, a man who raised money for charities and entertained the masses, the various young people who entrusted themselves to him would not have done so. In an interview this morning I heard one woman say “My mother was always warning me against strangers but I didn’t think he was one. Even though I’d never met him I felt as though I had because I’d seen him so often on television.”
And now it turns out that he had another reputation, that amongst employees at the BBC he was known as “a man who had strong preferences for sex with under age girls” and “a nasty piece of work, one not to be crossed”. So, on the one hand, people were duped by his reputation for good whilst those who knew his reputation for bad were frightened into keeping their own counsel. A stalemate and one that prevailed for decades.
Given that most people are not so complex or devious or plain bad how can we hope to know which reputations to believe, which people to trust? And here another quotation sprang to mind. This one quite surprised me. I’m not a Christian believer but I have had a traditional Christian upbringing and the phrase that was ringing in my head was:
“By their fruits ye shall know them”.
I couldn’t remember any more so I’ve just looked it up. The context is Jesus being accused of committing the work of the Devil rather than of God and this is his retort.
“Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?
Even so every good tree bringeth forth good fruits; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit.
A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit; neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit.
Wherefore by their fruits ye shall know them.” (Matt. 7:15–20.)
In other words, you build your reputation from what you do, not what you say. Many businesses these days talk about their CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) policy. Some even have a budget for it and do good things with that money. But real CSR should be an integral part of your business not just a nice-to-have add-on.
As a child I always loved the book The Water Babies so I re-read it recently. I had forgotten many of the details but remembered some of the delights. And amongst these there was still the stern but kindly mother-figure I remembered of Mrs DoAsYouWouldBeDoneBy. Wikipedia tells me that this is an example of The Golden Rule of reciprocity and that it exists in some form in most religions and social groups. So, if you lie and cheat and provide sub-standard goods you might succeed for a short while but will almost certainly be found out eventually. If, instead, you treat your customers the way you’d want to be treated there’s a good chance they’ll want to do business with you again.
It’ll make you feel good, too.