Oct 21, 2002

A couple weeks ago I was down at my alma mater for a College of Business Advisory Board meeting. While I was there, I was asked to sit on a panel on business ethics. I was one of four panelists. The others were the dean of the college (a great person and extremely effective leader— subject of a future article!), a professor of business ethics, and a fellow alum, the CEO of a $40 million furniture company he started after getting his MBA in the early nineties. The whole thing was moderated by the chairman of the college’s marketing department. We had an interesting discussion in front of a couple hundred students and other observers who showed up for the not-so-well-publicized event. Certainly, the topic of business ethics is one that many people are interested in today after situations like the Enron scandal or the much-publicized corporate excesses of Tyco’s CEO, Dennis Kozlowski (Tyco owns EarthTech). While by and large A/E/P and environmental firms are not publicly traded, and that is certainly a primary focus of the ethical debate, here’s some of what I got out of the whole thing: Politicians can call for ethical behavior from business all they want, but they better be able to demonstrate it themselves. While I think it’s a good thing that company CEOs and CFOs now have to sign off on their firms’ financial statements these days, I don’t really want to hear what the politicians have to say about business ethics. They are certainly no pillars of ethical behavior themselves! What’s considered ethical and what’s not changes over time and changes from place to place. At one time (about 25 years ago) it was not considered ethical to market oneself if you were a “professional.” That wasn’t very long ago! Now, beyond the fact that there’s nothing wrong with it, we have professional societies entirely dedicated to it! Ethics start with the individuals in leadership positions. The behavior of the leaders in the organization is what sets the tone for whether or not one can behave unethically and get away with it. Make the right calls yourself, do what’s right, do the right thing…and those who work for you will be more likely to do the same. Business schools are probably not the problem. The question was asked of our panel. My answer was that unethical behavior and greed are not celebrated in any business school that I know of. Our culture may emphasize materialism over all else but b-schools tend to emphasize more intellectual matters and attempt to teach their students how to think and solve problems. We’re probably better today than we ever were. Those who want to hearken back to the “good old days” when business people were more ethical may want to reconsider. The fact is that 100 years ago and longer many business leaders ran roughshod over anyone who got in the way of their making a buck. And because the media was so poorly developed there was just about no way to put the spotlight on these people. Today, the fishbowl we all live in keeps a lot of those who may otherwise do some unethical things from going out of control. Thank goodness our beloved A/E/P and environmental industry has an ethical standard that is probably second to no other group of businesses. It makes me glad to be part of this fabulous industry! Anything you’d like to sound off on? E-mail me.— M.Z. ( Originally published 10/21/2002.

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