BUSINESS ETHICS AND SOCIAL RESPONSIBILITY
Suggested Additional Assignments
Ask students to bring to class a newspaper, magazine, or internet article that raises ethical issues regarding a US company doing business overseas. They should be prepared to identify the ethical issues and discuss them using the checklist in the chapter.
Interview: Businesspeople on Ethics
Each student (or group of students) can interview a business person about ethics dilemmas they have faced? How did they handle them? Did they make the right decisions? Do they wish they had made a different choice? What were the impacts of their decisions on their companies? On their lives?
Role Play: Rienzi Plaza
Landlord Sheldon Baskin faces a decision. His rent-subsidy contract with the federal government has expired and he can raise rents at Rienzi Plaza by as much as 500 percent. If he raises rents to market rates, then 140 poor and elderly tenants will have to leave. Divide students into groups to represent various stakeholders: the landlord, the tenants, investors, and the government officials who administer the rent subsidy program. Students should brainstorm the business and ethical issues facing their stakeholder and devise negotiating positions, then engage in an all-stakeholder discussion moderated by the instructor.
Quotes of the Day
“The one and only social responsibility of business is to increase its profits.” –Milton Friedman (b. 1912), Nobel laureate in economics. “The business of business is serving society, not just making money.” –Dayton Hudson corporate constitution.
Ethical behavior offers significant advantages. Society as a whole benefits; executives who behave ethically have happier, more fulfilled lives; and unethical behavior can destroy a company and the individuals who engage in it. Apparently many students have never discussed these issues with parents, instructors, or religious leaders. It is useful for an authority figure to say openly that ethical behavior is important.
It is also important for students to examine ethical issues from a variety of points of view and for them to develop their own Life Principles – the rules by which they live their own lives.
In this chapter, we will present five basic issues.
- Why bother to act ethically at all?
- What is the most important consideration when making an ethical decision? To do the right thing for the right reason? Or to do what produces the most favorable results?
- Should you apply your personal ethics in the workplace? Or should you have different ethical values at home and at work?
- Is the primary role of corporations to make money? Or do they have responsibilities to workers, communities, customers, and other “stakeholders”?
- When, if ever, is lying acceptable?
Why Bother to Act Ethically At All?
“Doing the right thing” may not generate the greatest profit but over the long run it will lead to the greatest personal satisfaction and fulfillment.
Question: What do you need to be happy in life?
Answer: Sometimes students give pretty outrageous answers: $1 billion, a mistress; etc. It is useful for instructors to talk about the kinds of non‑monetary experiences that bring them satisfaction. Although students may joke about these sorts of “sappy” things, they are listening. Many times, they will come up to us later in the semester and say, “I would have done such‑and‑such yesterday, but I remembered our discussion about ethics, so I didn’t.”
General Question: Is money an accurate measure of happiness? Are they willing to make a trade-off between reducing their earnings to spend more time with their friends and family? What trade-offs did their parents make?
Question: What if, after making purchases at the local drugstore, you realize that the cashier forgot to charge you for an item? Or suppose a waitress forgets to charge you for the drink you ordered with your meal?
Answer: It is useful to begin the ethics discussion with small, personal issues such as these because they seem more real to students than abstract business issues. Virtually everyone has had an experience such as these. Usually, at least one student will have been a waiter who has had to pay for items she forgot to charge to the customer. In this way, students can see that their decisions have an impact on real people. It impresses students if instructors give examples of how they behaved [ethically] in such situations. It is also useful if the instructor can give examples of situations in which they behaved unethically and regretted it.
Society as a Whole Benefits from Ethical Behavior
Mutual trust is a vital part of a successful society. No society will survive long if the people are constantly having to protect themselves from dishonesty and the government is compelled to regulate businesses severely to ensure fairness. John Akers, the former chairman of IBM, puts it this way:
“There is no escaping this fact: the greater the measure of mutual trust and confidence in the ethics of a society, the greater its economic strength.”
People Feel Better When they Behave Ethically
Researchers who study happiness find that people expect material goods to make them happier than they actually do. Almost no matter how much people earn, they feel they would be happier if their income were just a little bit higher. So what does make people happy in the long run? Good relationships, satisfying work, ties to the community—all available at no additional cost.
Profitability is generally not what motivates managers to care about ethics. Managers want to feel good about themselves and the decisions they have made; they want to sleep at night.
Unethical Behavior Can Be Very Costly
Unethical behavior does not always damage a business, but it certainly has the potential of destroying a company overnight. So why take the risk?
Even if unethical behavior does not devastate a business, it can cause other, subtler damage. In one survey, a majority of those questioned said that they had witnessed unethical behavior in their workplace and that this behavior had reduced productivity, job stability, and profits. Unethical behavior in an organization creates a cynical, resentful, and unproductive workforce.
Although there is no guarantee that ethical behavior pays in the short or long run, there is evidence that the ethical company is more likely to win financially. Ethical companies tend to have a better reputation, more creative employees and higher returns than those that engage in wrong-doing.
But if we decide that we want to behave ethically, how do we know what ethical behavior is?
Theories of Ethics
When making ethical decisions, people sometimes focus on the reason for the decision – they want to do what is right. Thus, if they think it is wrong to lie, then they will tell the truth no matter what the consequence. Other times, people think about the outcome of their actions. They will do whatever it takes to achieve the right result, no matter what they have to do to obtain it. This choice – between doing right and getting the right result – has been the subject of much philosophical debate.
Under utilitarian ethics, a correct decision is one that tended to maximize overall happiness and minimize overall pain. Risk management and cost-benefit analyses are examples of utilitarian business practices.
The critics of utilitarian thought argue that it is simply not possible to “measure” happiness. Others say that utilitarians simply let the ends justify the means, and that they allow for bad behavior so long as the it generates good in the end. A third group argues that utilitarian philosophies err in equating pleasure with ethical behavior, and pain with wrongful behavior.
Many ethicists believe that utilitarians have it all wrong, and that the results are not as important as the reason for which the decision is made. To a deontological thinker, the ends do not justify the means.
The best-known proponent of the deontological model was an eighteenth-century German philosopher Immanuel Kant. He thought that human beings possessed a unique dignity, and that no decision that treated people as commodities could be considered just, even if the decision tended to maximize overall happiness, or profit, or any other quantifiable measure. Most followers of deontological ethics agree that utilitarianism is lacking, and that winning in the end does not automatically make a decision right. Ethical decisions, they argue, are those made for good and moral reasons in the first place, regardless of the outcome.
John Rawls raised the question of what type of society we would choose if we did not know what our status in the society would be. Would we choose a society that treated everyone equally or one that treats everyone fairly? What types of jobs would receive the most reward?
Ethical traps create great temptation to do what you know to be wrong or fail to do what you
know to be right.
Money is a powerful lure because most people believe that they would be happier if only they had more.
A recent study found that more creative people tend to be less ethical. The reason? They are better at rationalizing their bad behavior.
Warren Buffett has been quoted as saying, “The five most dangerous words in business may be: ‘Everybody else is doing it.’” Humans are social animals who are often willing to follow the leader, even to a place where they do not really want to go.
When someone in authority issues orders, even to do something clearly wrong, it is very tempting to comply. Fear of punishment, the belief in authority figures, and the ability to rationalize all play a role.
To “smooth earnings” sounds a lot better than to “cook the books” or plain old “commit fraud.” And “file sharing” sounds friendly and helpful—it has a very different ring than “stealing intellectual property,” which is what it really is. In making ethical decisions, it is important to use accurate terminology. Anything else is just a variation on rationalization.
Lost in a Crowd
When in a group, people are less likely to take responsibility, assuming that someone else will. They tend to check the reactions of others, and if everyone else seems calm, they assume that all is right. Bystanders are much more likely to react if they are alone and have to form an independent judgment.
Applying Personal Ethics in the Workplace
Should you behave in the workplace the way you do at home or do you have a separate set of ethics for each part of your life? What if your employees behave badly outside of work – should that affect their employment?
A fundamental question in business ethics is: What is the purpose of a corporation?
The Shareholder Model: Noted economist Milton Friedman argued that corporations have two primary responsibilities. First, they must comply with the law. Second, they must make as much money as possible for shareholders.
Companies were legally required to follow the “shareholder model” until the decade after the close of World War II. After American corporations supplied much of what was needed to stop Hitler, many politicians changed their attitudes toward benevolent decisions made by corporations. They softened restrictive language in corporation laws, so that companies could “do good deeds.” Such action was not and is still not required, but it is allowed.
The Stakeholder Model: The alternative point of view is that corporations should take care of more than shareholders alone. It is not that the owners of a corporation should be ignored—shareholders are included as one of several groups of stakeholders in a firm. But, a company must also look out for (among others) its employees, its customers, and the communities in which it operates. It may even be that companies have an obligation to broader interests such as “society” or “the environment”.
Every executive will treat employees well if she believes that doing so will lead to increased profits. Every executive is in favor of donating money to charity if the donation improves the company’s image and thereby pays for itself. But such win-win cases are not ethical dilemmas. In a true dilemma, a company considers an action that would not increase the shareholders’ return in any certain or measureable way.
The Organization’s Responsibility to Its Employees
Organizations cannot be successful without good workers. In many circumstances the shareholder and stakeholder modules agree that employees should be treated well. Disgruntled workers are likely to be unmotivated and unproductive. But sometimes, looking out for employees may not lead to higher profits. In these cases, does an organization have a duty to “take care” of its workers? The shareholder model says no; the stakeholder model takes the opposite view.
About the Ethics Cases
New to this edition are several Ethics Cases in the book. The discussion questions do not have clear, right or wrong answers. Students should be encouraged to explore the various possibilities, options, and ethical and other ramifications of the situations in order to arrive at their own ethical conclusions.
An Organization’s Responsibility to Its Customers
Customers are another group of essential stakeholders. A corporation must gain and retain loyal buyers if it is to stay in business for long. Treating customers well usually increases profits and helps shareholders.
But when, if ever, does an organization go too far? If a leader “puts customers first” in a way that significantly diminishes the bottom line, has she acted inappropriately? The shareholder model says yes.
Organization’s Responsibility to Overseas Contract Workers
Industrialization has always been the first stepping stone out of dire poverty—it was in England in centuries past, and it is now in the developing world. Eventually, higher productivity leads to higher wages.
When governments or customers try to force factories in the developing world to pay higher wages, the factory owners typically either relocate to lower wage countries or mechanize, thereby reducing the need for workers. In either case, the local economy suffers. Companies argue that higher wages lead to increased prices, which, in their turn, drive away customers.
When, if Ever, is Lying Acceptable?
We are taught from an early age that we must tell the truth. And usually, honesty is the best policy. The consequences of lying can be severe: students are suspended, employees are fired, and witnesses are convicted of perjury. Sometimes the problems are more subtle but still significant: a loss of trust, a loss of opportunities.
Suggested Additional Assignment Follow-up: Interview
If students conducted the interview with a business person, this would be a good time to discuss them.
Multiple Choice Questions
1. Milton Friedman was a strong believer in the _____________ model. He _______________ argue that a corporate leader’s sole obligation is to make money for the company’s owners.
- shareholder; did
- shareholder; did not
- stakeholder; did
- stakeholder; did not
Answer: A. Milton Friedman believed that if shareholder and stakeholder interests conflict, the company should act in the best interest of the shareholders.
2. In the 1919 lawsuit Dodge v. Ford, the Dodge brothers and other major shareholders sued Henry Ford and his board of directors over nonpayment of dividends. The Michigan Supreme Court sided with _______________ . Incorporation laws at the time ____________ companies to follow the shareholder model.
- Ford; required
- Ford; permitted
- The Dodge brothers; required
- The Dodge brothers; permitted
Answer: C. Ford supported several charitable causes, and paid virtually no dividends despite high profits. The Dodge brothers successfully sued Ford, then began their own car company.
3. Which of the following historic events led to a significant change in corporation laws, and permitted companies to follow the stakeholder model?
- The Great Depression
- World War II
- The Election of John F. Kennedy
- The Moon Landing
- The Supreme Court’s decision in Brown v. Board of Education
Answer: B. After American corporations contributed mightily toward stopping the Nazis in World War II, many powerful politicians wanted corporations to be able to participate more fully in American life. They softened restrictive language in corporation laws, so that companies could “do good deeds.”
4. Which of the following wrote the book, Utilitarianism, and believed that moral actions should “generate the greatest good for the greatest number”?
- Milton Friedman
- John Stuart Mill
- Immanuel Kant
- None of the above
5. Which of the following believed that the dignity of human beings must be respected, and that the most ethical decisions are made out of a sense of duty or obligation?
- Milton Friedman
- John Stuart Mill
- Immanuel Kant
- None of the above
1. Executives were considering the possibility of moving their company to a different state. They wanted to determine if employees would be willing to relocate, but they did not want the employees to know the company was contemplating a move because the final decision had not yet been made. Instead of asking the employees directly, the company hired a firm to carry out a telephone survey. When calling the employees, these “pollsters” pretended to be conducting a public opinion poll and identified themselves as working for the new state’s Chamber of Commerce. Has this company behaved in an ethical manner? Would there have been a better way to obtain this information?
Answer: The company’s approach was unethical and, frankly, stupid, relying on the assumption that the employees would never speak to each other and connect the dots. Employees were amazed to find that they had all received the same calls, and were incensed when they realized what had happened. They vented their anger to a newspaper reporter, who wrote a front‑page article about the company’s lies and insensitivity. The company spent millions on an employee relations campaign and a public‑relations blitz but has yet to undo the damage. Steve Goldfarb, “Little white lies,” Across the Board, May 1992, vol. 29, no. A5, p. 53.
2. When a fire destroyed the Malden Mills factory in Lawrence, Massachusetts, its 70-year-old owner, Aaron Feuerstein, could have shut down the business, collected the insurance money, and sailed off into retirement. But a layoff of the factory’s 3,000 employees would have been a major economic blow to the region. So instead Feuerstein kept the workers on the payroll while he rebuilt the factory. These actions gained him a national reputation as a business hero. Many consumers promised to buy more of the company’s Polartec fabric. In the end, however, the story did not have a fairy-tale ending: Five years after the fire, Malden Mills filed bankruptcy papers. The company was not able to pay off the loans it had incurred to keep the business going.
Did Feuerstein do the right thing?
Answer: Answers will vary.
3. Many socially responsible funds are now available to the investor who wants to make ethical choices. The Amana fund buys stocks that comply with Islamic laws. For example, it will not invest in holdings that earn interest, which is prohibited under Islamic law. The Ava Maria fund is designed for Catholic investors, the Timothy funds for evangelicals. The Sierra Fund focuses on environmentally friendly investments while the Women’s Equity Fund chooses companies that promote women’s interests in the workplace. On average, however, these socially responsible investments earn a lower return than standard index funds that mirror the performance of a stock index, such as the Standard & Poor’s 500.
Are socially responsible funds attractive to you? Do you now, or will you in the future, use them in saving for your own retirement?
Answer: Answers will vary.
4. When James Kilts became CEO of Gillette Co., the consumer products giant had been a mainstay of the Boston community for a hundred years. But the organization was going through hard times: Its stock was trading at less than half its peak price and some of its storied brands of razors were wilting under intense competitive pressure. In four short years, Kilts turned Gillette around—strengthening its core brands, cutting jobs, and paying off debt. With its stock up 61%, Kilts had added $20 billion in shareholder value.
Then suddenly Kilts sold Gillette to Procter & Gamble Co. for $57 billion. So short was Kilts’s stay in Boston that he never moved his family from their home in Rye, New York. The deal was sweet for Gillette shareholders—the company’s stock price went up 13% in one day. And tasty also for Kilts—his payoff was $153 million, including a $23.9 million reward from P&G for having made the deal and a “change in control” clause in his employment contract that was worth $12.6 million. In addition, P&G agreed to pay him $8 million a year to serve as vice chairman after the merger. When he retires, his pension will be $1.2 million per year. Moreover, two of his top lieutenants were offered payments totaling $57 million.
Any downside to this deal? Four percent of the Gillette workforce—6,000 employees—were fired. If the payouts to the top three Gillette executives were divided among these 6,000, each unemployed worker would receive $35,000. The loss of this many employees (4,000 of whom lived in New England) had a ripple effect throughout the area economy. Although Gillette shareholders certainly benefited in the short run from the sale, their profit would have been even greater without this $210 million payout to the executives. Moreover, about half the increase in Gillette revenues during the time that Kilts was running the show were attributable to currency fluctuations. A cheaper dollar increased revenue overseas. If the dollar had moved in the opposite direction, there might not have been any increase in revenue. Indeed, for the first two years after Kilts joined Gillette, the stock price declined. It wasn’t until the dollar turned down that the stock price improved.
Do CEOs who receive sweeteners have too strong an incentive to sell their companies? Is it unseemly for them to be paid so much when many employees will lose their jobs?
Answer: Answers will vary.
5. Many of America’s largest consumer product companies, such as Wal-Mart, Nike and Land’s End, buy fabric produced in China by Fountain Set Holdings Ltd. Chinese government investigators recently discovered that Fountain Set has contaminated a local river by dumping dye waste into it. What responsibility do U.S. companies have to ensure safe environmental practices by overseas suppliers?
Answer: Answers will vary.
1. Darby has been working for 14 months at Holden Associates, a large management consulting firm. She is earning $75,000 a year, which sounds good, but does not go very far in New York City. It turns out that her peers at competing firms are typically paid 20% more and receive larger annual bonuses. Darby works about 60 hours a week, more if she is traveling. A number of times she has had to reschedule her vacation or cancel personal plans to meet client deadlines. She hopes to go to business school in a year and has already begun the application process.
Holden has a policy that permits any employee who works as late as 8:00 p.m. to eat dinner at company expense. The employee can also take a taxi home. Darby is in the habit of staying until 8:00 p.m. every night, whether or not her workload requires it. Then she orders enough food for dinner, with leftovers for lunch the next day. She has managed to cut her grocery bill to virtually nothing. Sometimes she invites her boyfriend to join her for dinner. As a student, he is always hungry and broke. Darby often uses the Holden taxi to take them back to his apartment, although the cab fare is twice as high as to her own place.
Sometimes Darby stays late to work on her business school applications. Naturally she uses Holden equipment to print out and photocopy the finished applications. Darby has also been known to return catalog purchases through the Holden mailroom on the company dime. Many employees do that and the mailroom staff do not seem to mind.
Is Darby doing anything wrong? How would you behave in these circumstances?
Answer: Answers will vary.
2. H. B. Fuller Co. of St. Paul is a leading manufacturer of industrial glues. Its mission statement says the company “will conduct business legally and ethically.” It has endowed a university chair in business ethics and donates 5% of its profits to charity. But now it is under attack for selling its shoemakers’ glue, Resistol, in Central America. Many homeless children in these countries have become addicted to Resistol’s fumes. So widespread is the problem that glue-sniffers in Central America are called “resistoleros.” Glue manufacturers in Europe have added a foul-smelling oil to their glue that discourages abusers. Fuller fears that the smell may also discourage legitimate users. What should Fuller do?
Answer: The board of directors announced that the company would stop selling Resistol in Central America. Instead, it halted sales to retailers and small‑scale users in Honduras and Guatemala, but continued to sell the glue in large barrels to industrial users. It has substituted a less toxic chemical in the glue’s formulation and has tried to develop a safe water‑based glue. It has contributed to community programs in Central America. Critics point out that the glue is still readily available to children in Nicaragua, El Salvador, and Costa Rica. Diana B. Henriques, “Black Mark for a Good Citizen,” New York Times, Nov. 26, 1995, P. C1.
3. Steve supervises a team of account managers. One night at a company outing, Lawrence, a visiting account manager, made some wildly inappropriate sexual remarks to Maddie, who was on Steve’s team. When she told Steve, he was uncertain what to do, so he asked his boss. She was concerned that if Steve took the matter further and Lawrence was fired or even disciplined, her whole area would suffer. Lawrence was one of the best account managers in the region, and everyone was overworked as it was. She told Steve to get Maddie to drop the matter. Just tell her that these things happen, and Lawrence did not mean anything by it. What should Steve do? What ethical traps does he face? What would be your Life Principle in this situation?
Answer: Answers will vary.
4 David has just spoken with a member of his sales team who has not met her sales goals for some months. She has also missed 30 days of work in the past six months. It turns out that she is in the process of getting a divorce, and her teenage children are reacting very badly. Some of the missed days have been for court, others because the children have refused to go to school. If David’s team does not meet its sales goals, no one will get a bonus and his job may be at risk. What should he do?
Answer: Answers will vary.
5. Rapper Ice-T’s song Cop Killer generated significant controversy when it was released. Among other things, its lyrics anticipate slitting a policeman’s throat. Such lyrics have become reasonably common today, but they were much less common 20 years ago.
When Cop Killer was recorded, Time Warner, Inc. was struggling with a $15 billion debt and a depressed stock price. Had Time Warner renounced rap albums with harsh themes, its reputation in the music business—and future profits—might have suffered. This damage might even have spilled over into the multimedia market, which was crucial to Time Warner’s future.
Did Time Warner do anything wrong when it decided to release Cop Killer?
Answer: Answers will vary.
6. You are negotiating a new labor contract with union officials. The contract covers a plant that has experienced operating losses over the past several years. You want to negotiate concessions from labor to reduce the losses. However, labor is refusing any compromises. You could tell them that, without concessions, the plant will be closed, although that is not true. Is bluffing ethical? Under what circumstances? What would Kant and Mill say? What is your Life Principle?
Answer: Answers will vary.
- Some of the ethics cases and discussion questions featured in this chapter are adapted from Applied Business Ethics by Dean A. Bredeson, Cengage Learning, 2011. ↑