Business Case Studies, Executive Interviews, George G Brenkert on Building Ethical Organizations

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Interview with George G Brenkert on Building Ethical Organizations
August 2009 - By Dr. Nagendra V Chowdary

DR. George G Brenkert
Professor of Business Ethics at the McDonough School of Business, George town University.
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  • For the benefit of our readers and business ethics teachers across the globe, can you please share your delivery approach to business ethics / honesty and fairness in organizations course? Is there a bestway to sensitize and sterilize the managers and would-be managers on corrupt business ethics practices?
    In the classroom, the best way is, first, to get them to see the fact that others engage in such corrupt practices does not justify them doing so, and then, second, to challenge them to find creative and imaginative ways to work around the “easy” corrupt path. Finally, the benefits of taking themore challenging path need to be driven home to them. Within businesses, the leaders of the organization must set the tone not only through their own pronouncements but also actions. The business must be clear as to what kinds of actions are acceptable and which are not. This cannot be done simply by general rules and guidelines, but requires specific training, stories, and examples that are spread throughout the organization. The measures by which employees are measured and rewarded must be in line with the kinds of actions employees must take in ethically problematic situations. And then those who break the rules, who engage in corrupt or unethical actions, must be called to account. Within limits of privacy and confidentiality, these actions must be known throughout the organization. In short, ethics is not something that is simply “added on” to what is already being done within an organization. It is not the “frosting on the cake.” It must be embedded within the organization so that it becomes part of its DNA.

  • Recently, Jon M Huntsman wrote an interesting book, Winners Never Cheat: Everyday Values We Learned as Children (But May Have Forgotten), wherein he chronicles the story of Huntsman Corp’s extraordinary perseverance in doing the business the ethical way. Why don’t we see more of such companies and what, according to you should be done to see more of such companies?
    It is too easy to do things the ways they have always been done as well as simply to assume that in business you must cheat. Unless and until we can challenge these assumptions that many people have we will not be able to create more ethical organizations. Of course, eliminating perverse incentives created by regulations may also greatly help here. That is something that ethical businesses might also seek to do.

  • Every aspect of a business is being ranked – Fortune 500, Most Admired Companies, Most Innovative Companies, Best Companies To Work For, Highest Paid CEOs, Most Influential Business Leaders, Best Corporate Governance Practices, Best Global Brands, etc. Why not ranking for Business Ethics Practices? (Although Transparency International’s ratings serve a limited purpose of assessing least corrupt countries, and not companies)
    There are rankings for companies that are the best for employees, whose environmental records are best, etc. I suspect it is more meaningful to have these particular rankings rather than the more global ranking of “Best Ethical Companies.” The danger with such a ranking is that if one employee, who was a member of a “Best Ethical Company,” did something really wrong, it might seem that the designation of that company was compromised and so too that kind of designation.

  • HBS has pioneered the case method and became highly successful in exporting it to rest of the world. Any updates on this? Do you think it has over lived its life?
    It may well have over lived its life for some topics, but for business ethics it remains an excellent way of raising and resolving problems in the classroom. I try to use current cases and to conjoin them with more general readings on the underlying ethical issues that arise in the case. My aim is to use the particular circumstances of a specific case not only to lend the issues students will face in business a greater sense of reality, but also to portray the real pressures and dilemmas they will face. However, their solutions to the problems that arise in the case should also reflect some deeper thinking about the underlying ethical issues the case raises. The classroom is not the same as a business in which some issue must be decided, perhaps, within a very narrow time period. This is sometimes derided as not providing a “real situation” in which “real answers” have to be arrived at. On the other hand, the great thing about the classroom is that students have time to reflect on issues they don’t have time to consider in “the real world” and hence they can go back to their businesses with a better understanding of the issues they face there.


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