Ethics – The Downward Slide or the Bottom?

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Have ethics been dealt a deathblow by recent events? What impact is this having on businesses, non-profits, and governments? What is happening in your enterprise? What are you personally feeling about what you see and experience? What are today's college students learning from the current economic situation and ethics examples in the news – and what will you do when they show up in your company? Most importantly, what are you doing about it?

The Eberly College of Business at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP) recently hosted their semi-annual Business Advisory Council meeting. As part of “Business Day”, the university hosts a small session made up of 40+ business executives from across the state who are challenged with multiple questions and scenarios by the Dean of Eberly College - Dr. Robert Camp. This time, however, Dr. Camp posed only 1 topic – Ethics.

He raised several interesting questions that I would like for you to consider. While everyone believes they can spot the blatant ethics boundaries, what about the ones that are vague. Recent events have shown some have lost their way, and many of these are examples of gross failures of ethics coupled with poor monitoring or enforcement.

Many companies have “ethics statements”, training, and role-playing workshops, but what do they actually enforce? How do employees identify, report, and resolve ethics questions? Several attendees at the event noted “hotlines” that employees could call to report suspected offenses. Years ago, I had a client in Charlotte NC called Intercede who did precisely that. Does your company have a hotline or a process for reporting/resolution?

Dr. Camp questioned the nuance between “legality and ethics” - just because an action isn't “illegal” do companies therefore treat that action as within the boundaries of “ethical”? You don't have to look any further than the news over the past 6 months to find plenty of examples where this “nuance” has been lost on executives and government officials alike. Where does your company stand on that boundary?

What about those who are now rationalizing bad behavior because of the examples they see in the press? There are clear indications that people are more likely to believe that the perception of widespread abuses of trust justify the weakening of their own moral standards. A recent study of over 5,000 graduate students (32 grad schools in US and Canada) showed that business students are more likely to cheat than their counterparts in other disciplines? How do you feel about the future of business ethics now?

Given that my clients are located all over the world, topics such as ethics (and diversity) carry completely different meanings depending upon where you are on the planet. If you're part of a multi-national and have traveled to your various sites on other continents, you most certainly have experienced this phenomena, too. How does your company deal with those differences?

Several years ago, I worked for a very ethically centered CEO who suddenly found himself acquiring a firm from the PacRim with a “slush fund” (specifically earmarked for “handling officials to get things done” as the other firm readily acknowledged). When our CEO indicated he was going to shut that process down, the grumbling from the other side of the ocean became quite vicious. From their perspective, why did we bother acquiring them if we were going to take away a necessary (and legitimate) tool for their culture?

Thank you, Dr. Camp. Knowing that you're focusing on this topic speaks well of your focus/purpose and the seriousness with which you take your charge of creating solid citizens and business people of the future. Perhaps the biggest set of students you will reach from your effort will be those reading this blog. I am certainly one of them!!

I would like to leverage Dr. Camp's initiative to jolt all of you into thinking about ethics in your organization – and thinking way beyond the “statements & training”. Bring this topic up at lunch today. Bring it up at your next team meeting. Stick a note in your suggestion box at work. Bring it up at home or on a car ride with your kids. Most importantly, remind everyone around you that ethics are not a “sometimes” thing, and we can't let the few insane acts that make the papers skew your thinking about what is right.

Do something today to drive a discussion or action around “ethics” and post the outcome as a reply to this blog.

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