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Exploring ethical behavior in business

Oct. 26 , 2010 -- The College of Business kicks off its fifth annual Business Ethics Week Oct. 26 to Nov. 3 with a full slate of classes and guest speakers to create a focus among students and faculty on business ethics, corporate social responsibility and sustainable business.

A photo of the business building.

Assistant Professor of Management Denise Kleinrichert, who specializes in business ethics, and Professor of Management Murray Silverman recently discussed the state of business ethics and its importance in education.




What is business ethics?

Denise Kleinrichert: Ethics goes back to philosophical ways of thinking about our behavior and how we make decisions about ourselves and others, and extends to corporate environments. Corporate decision making is not only informed by regulatory issues related to certain business practices, but by ethical standards or principles that have been honed over the years regarding decisions that are fair and equitable.

Murray Silverman: People in every business have ideas about what is right and wrong that are different from one another. The way to create an ethical culture at a company is to start by encouraging an ongoing dialogue about what it means to be ethical.

How does a business or employee deal with differing ideas of what is ethical?

DK:  Everybody understands what honesty means. Whether it is practiced is another issue. In issues of bribery, what constitutes a bribe in this particular business setting versus another? Is a gift a bribe? Differences of opinion can occur, but it’s an opportunity to have a rich dialogue about what that means for the organization. Sometimes, ethics conversations can be seen as forbidden because people are afraid of differences of opinion about what is ethical.

How do ethics fit with ideas of social responsibility and sustainable business?

MS: Ethics is like a ground floor. You can have a company that's ethical, but doesn’t go beyond the norms of ethics and law to think of ways to engage the community or the environment. Social responsibility means going beyond the law and extending the company in terms of doing good things for stakeholders that they don’t really have to do. I see social responsibility as a way of looking for doing good, whereas sustainability is looking to create a world that is totally equitable and that creates no environmental harm.

DK: It’s ethical to be socially responsible, but ethics doesn’t say you have to be socially responsible. Social responsibility is an ethical practice because it goes beyond laws and norms. It’s having that vision and positioning an organization in a positive direction.

How do you prepare students to face ethical dilemmas in the real world?

DK: We try to pass along that these are real problems. We wrestle with case studies and it brings a lot of discussion from the students as they think, ‘wow, I could face this.’ A lot of students expect business to be much more concrete, but they realize the world isn’t that concrete. I sometimes tell my students if you have to make a decision quick, think, “what if this decision appeared as the main story on the front of the New York Times,” would that give you pause? If so, then that’s a quick assessment that you need to take the time to think that through. 

MS: I focus on what organizations can do. You can’t make everyone be ethical. I’m sure Kenneth Lay and people at Enron went to business school and they studied ethics. It didn’t make them more ethical, because a lot of behaviors relate to opportunity and peer pressure. If you are running an organization or a business of your own, then you should think about creating a culture that is ethical. There are many parts to that, the biggest part of bringing people together to create dialogue. What are the situations that come up? You have to come at it from both ends.

How have students reacted to Business Ethics Week?

DK: I have found that people here are interested in engaging in dialogue and discussing these issues. I think that openness lends itself to that sort of dialogue about what’s happening with the environment or community challenges. Our students want to be the drivers of Business Ethics Week, and they're embracing the opportunity to engage with corporate leaders about ethics and sustainability. 

For more information about Business Ethics Week, visit: http://cob.sfsu.edu/cob/business-ethics/

-- Michael Bruntz


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