MANAGEMT 749 - Ethics in Management

Course Rationale, Purpose and Objectives

Welcome to this course on business ethics. The subject of this course may seem to be especially relevant and timely, given the many blatant, injurious and costly ethical lapses of organizations and their leaders. Yet, paradoxically, the real value, indeed the centrality, of business ethics may be masked by the many scandals we continue to witness and perhaps be personally harmed by.

Every action we take as business managers and leaders has ethical dimensions. To deny that assertion is itself an ethical decision that bears significant business and ethical consequences. Focusing on ethical issues only when confronted with so-called ethical crises, dilemmas and scandals, turns out to be strategically reactive, sub-optimal and very costly with respect to maximizing value for stockholders and all other stakeholders, all ethical issues aside. Business leaders simply cannot afford to wait until crises hit before they becoming serious about ethics. Empirically speaking, not becoming serious about ethics in one’s daily business invites crises and failure. Put another way, do any of us know any business student who left school intent on becoming unethical or, worse, criminal, and leading their organizations to ruin?

The purpose of this course springs directly from Fuqua’s mission, which encompasses “the advancement of management practice…with the end product (Fuqua’s graduates) being leaders of consequence.”  The most recent COLE/Business Week Executive Leadership Survey confirmed that a core competence for today and tomorrow’s leaders is being able to promote ethical environments.  Only ethically competent leaders can promote ethical environments. 

Our purpose in this course is to increase our capacity to sustain effective, ethical management/ leadership in our organizations.  We will strive to fulfill this purpose through focusing on seven insight-and-capacity-building objectives.

The first objective is to think through and affirm our own view of the nature and purpose(s) of business. What is business for?  Whom is business for?  Rather than reciting “received dogma,” this course challenges you to first ask: What are the criteria for choosing and evaluating particular business purposes?  Is it mandatory (according to what or whom?) to have only one business purpose?  Does the inherent nature of business somehow make it impossible to be our best, truest selves?  Does being really successful in business mean that we have to set aside important dimensions of our humanity?  Is business the kind of endeavor that is worthy of our full commitment, our passion?  (If not, is transformational leadership possible?)

We know that each particular business must have a purpose and mission, so that valid strategies can be created and implemented.  We know that without sound and clear corporate identity and direction, operations flounder.  The same holds true for our business life as a whole: Our overall “philosophy of business” will shape all of our strategic and tactical choices and actions, ethical or otherwise.  There are business purposes that support ethics and those that make ethics very difficult. 

The second objective is to increase our capacity to discern the ethical dimensions inherent in all of our managerial and leadership decisions.  Each and every decision we make will align or not align with our own philosophy of business, our identities (i.e., who we say we are as human beings) and our own set of ethical values and principles.  For example, suppose we find our organizations experiencing diminishing demand and revenues.  What are the ethical issues involved in downsizing?  What is the ethical significance of firing an employee for any reason? Or, suppose we sincerely espouse open, candid and truthful communication.  But what are our ethical guidelines when such communication seems impractical if not downright harmful? Do we have a clear personal map for why, when and how we withhold information?  Is it ever right to bluff and/or deceive in business?

Our third insight-and-capacity-building objective follows from the first two.  We will explore tools and ways of thinking that will help us navigate through difficult and complex ethical decisions.  We each will build our own framework for ethical analysis, introspection, decision-making, and action.  This framework will be grounded in our overall philosophy of business, which in turn well be grounded in our identities, and the distinctive core values and ethical principles that we each affirm as true and worthy of upholding.  Then we will build our skills in applying our core values and principles, by using our ethical framework to analyze, to introspect, to decide upon, and to act to address concrete ethical challenges.

Our fourth insight-and-capacity-building objective is to strengthen our capacity to create, nurture and sustain ethical cultures within our organizations.  How do we move beyond mere legal compliance to an integrity-based culture?  What roles do corporate values statements and codes of ethics play, beyond adorning coffee mugs?  How do we ensure that all of our organizations’ operations, including talent management, support espoused values and desired ethical outcomes?

Business ethics, at heart, is not about issues, it’s about us as human beings.  What do we value?  Whom do we value? How do we wish to treat others and be treated?  What kind of work environments do we want to experience and help create?  What kinds of obligations do we believe we carry toward others, and which others?  What kinds of obligations do we claim from others?  What kinds of obligations ensue when others call us their leader?  How do we provide leadership within our business communities when stakeholders give significantly different answers to these questions?

There are no techniques or formulas for answering these questions, and they require self-awareness.  How can we add ethical value if we don’t know what we ourselves value?  What if we don’t know our own motives?  And suppose we do know what is right, but we don’t have the character, the backbone, to act accordingly?  Were any of the ethical debacles in recent years caused by the perpetrators’ not knowing that they were doing something wrong? (“Oops, sorry, that was wrong?  Why didn’t somebody tell me?”)  Not likely.  Knowledge is vital, but woefully insufficient.

That is why this course entails more than acquiring conceptual knowledge, as important as that is.  The fifth insight-and-capacity-building objective is to increase our own awareness of ourselves as ethical beings.  We will become clear about our own philosophy of business and our own ethical values and principles.  We will explore our ethical strengths and our potential vulnerabilities.  We will engage in exercises that will prepare us to act effectively in those demanding, stressful and ethically charged situations that inevitably await us as leaders.

Our sixth objective emerges in light of the international and multicultural contexts we find ourselves in as global leaders.  Can we take our ethical values, principles and actions across borders?  What do we need to leave behind?  What adjustments can we make and still remain ethical?  For example, what do we do about bribery and gift giving, in the context of diverse cultures and legal systems – and intense competition?  So, our sixth objective is to give us the insight, capacity and tools to help us to act ethically as global leaders across borders.

The final objective is to increase our capacity to communicate as ethical leaders.  Often, just as important as making the right call, is the leader’s ability to communicate persuasively the reasons and benefits.  We may be convinced that an ethical culture is essential to corporate performance, but are we effective in persuading our constituents to invest in, and take personal risks for, such an outcome?  Your professor has known and worked with many ethical leaders whose ethical leadership was significantly diminished because they were nearly mute when it came to talking about ethics as a personal conviction and strategic imperative.  How do we translate sound ethical practice into the language of everyday business?

In the spirit of good ethics, full disclosure requires that I, your professor, openly state a core personal conviction infusing this course.  Having worked with business leaders at all levels, for several decades, I do not believe that there is a strategic decision we can make that promises a greater return – qualitatively and quantitatively – in all important dimensions, for all stakeholders, including ourselves – than our commitment to be ethical leaders and to help nurture ethical organizations.  My sincere hope and belief is that this course will help all of us move forward on that journey.