By Barbara Wray
Business leaders say that recent events prove something they’ve long known — “learning” ethics begins early, if at all, and can only be reinforced in business practices.
“While we may learn right from wrong growing up in our families, we don’t sit around the dinner table and talk about fraud or what it means to take good care of a customer or employee,” says Debbie McAlister, chair of the marketing department in the College of Business Administration at Southwest Texas State University in San Marcos. “That needs to be done in a college environment and throughout one’s career.”
McAlister also is co-author of two books, including Business and Society: A Strategic Approach to Corporate Citizenship and Integrity Management: A Guide to Managing Legal and Ethical Issues in the Workplace.
She says that lack of experience can let people take the wrong path. That step can be exacerbated by a lack of proper training, which leads to improper actions.
McAlister says the exposure to good or bad business ethics begins when teenagers enter the workforce. She says companies should recognize their responsibility in this reality.
Rick Burciaga, chairman and CEO of Wells Fargo Bank for the Austin region, says employees across the San Francisco-based banking company have access to an anonymous hotline on which they can express concerns.
“A culture of “not telling” is very hard to overcome,” Burciaga says. The hotline provides one tool to combat that mode.
The company also invests time and money in ethics training, reminding employees to “do the right thing,” he says.
Author McAlister says a dedication to right or wrong starts at the top — and by real action.
“Most of the things we look for relate to corporate culture, which is ultimately set over time by top management,” she says. “Some of the companies in the [recent] news have a written code of ethics and ethics training. What makes the difference is the day-to-day decision making, trust and commitment over the long term to be a solid corporate citizen.”
Burciaga says that one manager engendered a culture that did not meet Wells Fargo’s ethical standards and was asked to leave.
“It’s not that people were so dishonest or unethical, but the environment had drifted and [that person] was held accountable,” Burciaga says. “You provide leadership, training and hold people accountable. Once you do that, all that’s left is whether they’re willing.”
Create a culture that defines the visions and values, provide training and hold people accountable when they stumble, is Burciaga’s mantra. He says employees appreciate that environment.
“If we had a culture that only talked about it without the force of personality to act when necessary, we’d be missing a leg of the chair. [Taking action] is the hardest part,” Burciaga says.
Those who choose the “high road“ stand to gain more than a better night’s sleep.
According to McAlister, many studies show companies that exhibit high levels of ethical and responsible behavior over the long term financially outperform companies without these behaviors.
Additionally, ethical companies maintain a competitive advantage in consistently attracting the top candidates.
“Who wants to work for a company that is dishonest with its employees or customers? There’s a good business advantage to good business ethics,” says Phillip Thompson, director of the Center for Ethics and Leadership and the Patricia A. Hayes Professor of Ethics, both at at St. Edward’s University.
“Most people are in business because they need the income — and that brings additional pressures. Decision-making related to the job is not as clear as it could be if there weren’t pressure to make a living,” McAlister says.
Burciaga says newer companies, in the interest of survival, often are so focused on growth and producing revenue that little time is given over to something as “esoteric” as ethics.
“Large public companies have been under such pressure to produce positive earnings that it has caused some companies to lose focus on right and wrong… Some employees have become so greedy that the opportunity to make dollars led them to make unethical decisions,” says Dale Chrisman, principal of Austin-based public relations firm The Chrisman Group.
Chrisman also teaches corporate communications at the University of Texas. He says the crisis goes beyond multinational companies, challenging small companies, government and nonprofit organizations alike.
“The problem with ethics drills all the way down to individual. It’s an attitude of ‘me first,’ of greed,” Chrisman says.
“Organizations exist and succeed with the permission of the people. A company that abuses its customers or employees can’t succeed for long,” Chrisman says.
And ethics can be taught, according to Thompson of St. Edward’s.
Starting last fall, the university offers a master’s of science in organizational leadership and ethics. When the university surveyed Austin businesses, 75 percent said they were interested in such a program and 60 percent expressed interest in helping to pay for such a program.
Throughout the course of the year, students conduct programs on ethics and interview members of the Austin business community. Part of ethics instruction is theory, but students also need concrete examples.
“[The interviews] are important to me because our students desperately need positive role models,” Thompson says. “There’s a lot of hype that no one in business is ethical. It’s OK to be skeptical, but when you reach cynicism, you sort of give up. We need to combat that cynicism.”
Each semester, students interview business managers — running the gamut from major corporations to fast food restaurants. Consistently, 90 percent of managers report that ethics instruction is a good idea.
“[Those results] help to snap them out of the idea that no one values ethics,” Thompson says.
In partnership with St. Edward’s University, the Samaritan Center for Counseling and Pastoral Care is focusing on what’s right with Central Texas organizations and individuals via Austin’s first Ethics in Business Awards program.
In addition to a November awards ceremony honoring those who set the highest standards, the program will propel an ongoing dialogue about the importance of ethics in business through workshops conducted in conjunction with the organizations honored.
“For us, this is a year-round ethics education program — not just an event,” says Richard Holcomb, executive director of the Samaritan Center.
“We need to get away from this attitude of ’How legal is it, and can I get away with it?’ and get to ‘Is it right, and how will I feel if I do this?’” says Chrisman, who donates his time to the Ethics in Business Awards program.
“Ethics really crosses any line of behavior. It’s a shame that we call it ‘business ethics’,” Burciaga says.