Business and Ethics in Continuing Conflict

Ethical lapses in business behavior may be rampant, but they are not new. They can, however, be remedied, according to the panelists participating in a Business and Media Forum program at Saint Mary's College on October 28.

"While the specifics are novel, there's nothing terribly new about our concerns about the ethics of business organizations," said Ed Epstein, chair of UC Berkeley's Peace and Conflict Studies program and former dean of Saint Mary's School of Economics and Business Administration.

Woodrow Wilson Visiting Fellow Dennis Reigle went further. The former managing director of human resources and partner matters for Arthur Anderson LLP in North America said, "Lapses is a remarkably kind word for what's happened. There have been blatant examples of disregard for propriety."

Reigle noted that people justify unethical behavior by saying "everyone's doing it." But, he said, they need to realize there are valid reasons to be ethical, and the consequences of unethical behavior are substantial. Foremost, Reigle believes, is the issue of trust.

Saint Mary's faculty member Barbara McGraw, who teaches and writes about ethical and political issues in business as well as about moral values and public life in America, agreed. Describing what happens, for instance, when someone exchanges cash for an item, she said, "If we didn't have basic trust in business transactions, we couldn't have any business transactions."

Reigle noted that unethical behavior extends beyond the business world. He cited the examples of politics, athletics, entertainment, religion, and medicine.

But, said Reigle, there are also examples worth emulating. He spoke about a university football coach who believed the reasons to bench a star player outweighed having the player available for a big game. The coach held firm in his decision despite disagreement from others who valued the chance to win above all else.

"There's an example of modeling ethical behavior that we can all take heart from. He stood up and did what was right. He had perspective on what was important-it wasn't a football game, and it wasn't his job," said Reigle. "If a lot of people just followed good common sense, we wouldn't be having these discussions as often as we do."

-- by Amy DerBedrosian
College Communications