Business Ethics Taught by a White Collar Criminal?
According to Merriam Webster's Dictionary, ethics is the principles of conduct governing an individual or a group. This is an interpretive definition; it changes depending on culture, and that is why teaching ethics for a globalizing economy is rather difficult for current business schools.
A great example of the difference in ethics is the use of bribery. In some countries, the practice of bribery is acceptable, to lube the gears of government in order to get approval for certain business ventures. Recently, Walmart was accused of bribery in Mexico to attain build permits for new stores, but it also runs rampant in India, China, and Russia. Keep in mind that three of those countries are included in the BRIC countries.
The question that needs to be addressed is how do we teach our future CEOs of global businesses how to act ethically?
As an accounting student of the B-school here at Michigan State University, we, like many other business schools, learned ethics through a white collar criminal. He has short white hair, dressed well, and in his 50’s. His name, Andrew Fastow. Once the financial director of Enron, now the ethics “professor” of many business schools worldwide. He told his story and asked what we would have done in his shoes. His talk fostered debates on where one would cross the line. It made the topic real and tangible, something not easy to accomplish using PowerPoints.
Ethics is something hard to be taught. There is no hard and fast rule for determining if a decision is ethical. Regulations, including the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, have not prevented fraud. Enron, like other failed companies, viewed the complexity of the rules as an opportunity to game the system. As the world is globalizing, we need to concentrate on ethics teachings more in business schools so that the next generation can see the difference between window dressing a transaction or doing it for a valid business purpose. There is no global consensus on what is morally ethical, but adding it to curriculum in business schools globally sure won’t hurt the cause.