Ask More of Business

Asking More Commentary: Perspectives from Mendoza College of Business

Commentary Post - Carolyn Y. Woo

Holding the line

November 16, 2009

Amidst the egregious ethical violations that have earned our disdain and hijacked our economic vitality and well-being, deep down I know that the problem does not stop with the big offenders who capture headlines and populate the media. I am concerned about the “regular folks,” the people like you and me, our neighbors, colleagues and students who, by and large, are good people trying to do the right things.

But we also face pressures to demonstrate results, as well as work with and compete against people who don’t share the same values and abide by the same boundaries. We are presented with seductions to look the other way, to go with the flow, to participate even when our moral senses suggest otherwise.

By certain indications, cheating is widespread in our culture. In research by Donald McCabe, a professor of management and global business at Rutgers Business School, more than 70 percent of students across all types of education institutions report that they engage in some form of cheating. HireRight, a company that does background checks, estimates that 80 percent of resumes are misleading and 20 percent contain fabricated degrees, as reported in “Cheating Culture” by David Callahan. Examples of recent transgressions that come to mind include a CEO, an admissions director of a leading university and a head coach of a major sports team.

The Josephson Institute’s 2008 Report Card on the Ethics of American Youth surveyed nearly 30,000 teens about cheating and concluded that the results “painted a troubling picture” for our future leaders. The survey found that 64 percent of teens reported cheating on an exam in the past year; 30 percent said they stole items from a store; 23 percent admitted stealing from a relative; and 42 percent said they lied to save money. Nearly all the 2008 results showed an increased level in these behaviors compared to the 2006 survey. As one CEO reflected in a speech at Notre Dame, “People want to toe the line, but the line keeps slipping.”

How does the line slip? Whatever the reasons, it is not that people do not know right from wrong. Rushworth Kidder, founder of the Institute for Global Ethics and author of numerous books including “Moral Courage,” found in numerous surveys across cultures, countries, sectors, economic strata, professions and ages that people tend to cite truth-telling or honesty as one of the five most cherished values.

So the challenge is that knowing does not lead to doing. Social and psychological rationalizations blunt our moral judgment. These rationalizations take some of the following forms:

• A means for noble ends (I hate to let my parents down)

• The Roman Holiday (When in Rome …)

• “Dilbert’s lament” or mischaracterization (It really wasn’t that bad)

• Self-exemption by pay grade (It’s certainly beyond my level)

• A clear conscience (There’s no harm done), and

• It’s worth the gamble (Most people get away with it).

So how do we hold the line? 

An organization’s environment and leadership clearly make a difference in promoting integrity in its culture and business activities, according to results drawn from employee surveys from 1994 to 2005 by the Ethics Resource Center. Where there are written ethical standards that are backed up by training, a properly staffed office and reporting mechanisms in place, employees report a lower level of misconduct, less pressure to compromise ethical standards and higher percentage of reporting when violations do occur. The same outcomes also are achieved from senior leaders who talk about ethics, inform employees of the importance of ethical behavior, keep promises and model ethical behavior themselves.

These findings conform to the understanding that the average adult tends to be at a stage of moral development whereby actions and perceived boundaries are driven by group norms. What group is more salient to us than that in our workplace, where we spend our waking hours, derive our identity and from which we receive benefits and sanctions? As such, it is important that CEOs recognize their significant impact, both directly and indirectly through their organizations, on the moral development of their colleagues.

The responsibility also must be borne by individuals. Over the last four years, I have co-taught a course titled Character Project with Fr. Mark Poorman, CSC, a moral theologian and vice president for Student Affairs at Notre Dame. In the course, we look to achieve the following: Our first order of business is to engage students to claim the values that drive their actions and decisions. For good and legitimate reasons, we might say, “I play the piano, but I am not a pianist;” or, “I run, but I am not a runner.” The corrupted cousins of these statements appear as excuses such as, “I lie sometimes, but I am not a liar;” “It wasn’t really me, I had too much to drink;” “I did not want to do it, but others made me,” “I had not intended to cause harm, I just didn’t think.”

We engage the students to own the values, however unflattering, that produce the actions. The second objective is for students to connect the dots from repeated actions to habits which harden into vices or virtues, the manifestation of character. Small daily actions, not words nor intentions, are the building blocks of the “right stuff”: authenticity, integrity, care for others, courage.

From all the experiences that we have gained with our students, I want to share one observation. Moral growth absolutely relies on individuals having a sense of who they are at their best. But where does this vision of self come from? For our students, there are consistently two sources: the teachings of their faith and the people who love them. And in those loved ones, the young people see principles in action, commitment that calls for sacrifices, and the belief in our students that they would, of course, “do the right thing.” It is a form of poverty if such expectations have never been communicated nor internalized.

As I close, I may not have the answer as to how the line slips, but I am positive that we can hold the line. Moral courage starts with each of us --living by its dictates, creating the environment that values it and holding those in our charge responsible for it.

About the Ethisphere Institute:

The research-based Ethisphere Institute is a leading international think-tank dedicated to the creation, advancement and sharing of best practices in business ethics, corporate social responsibility, anti-corruption and sustainability. The Institute’s associated membership group, the Ethisphere Council, is a forum for business ethics that includes more than 200 leading corporations, universities and institutions. The Ethisphere Council is dedicated to the development and advancement of individuals on its membership council through increased efficiency, innovation, tools, mentoring, advice and unique career opportunities. Ethisphere Magazine, which publishes the globally recognized World’s Most Ethical Companies Ranking, is the quarterly publication of the Institute. More information on the Ethisphere Institute, including ranking projects and membership, can be found at