Ethics in business Featured

5:37pm EDT August 30, 2006
For today’s managers, accountability has evolved to encompass a new set of responsibilities. Factors like performance and profitability are still foremost considerations. But contemporary managers have an added role — to ensure their employees are conducting business ethically.

A single ethical misdeed by a single employee can sink an entire organization, and management is becoming sharply aware of this truth.

Across the nation, corporate leaders are examining how they can safeguard their own businesses from the pitfalls of unethical behavior. A critical element of this process is ensuring workers are armed with the knowledge necessary to make ethical decisions, notes Elden Monday, state vice president for University of Phoenix’s three local campuses in Pennsylvania.

Smart Business spoke with Monday about the intersection between education and ethics, and how businesses can take steps to ensure their employees are meeting expectations for ethical behavior.

How does education affect a company or individual’s ethical behavior?
The majority of ethical missteps in businesses occur because workers do not know the best way to handle a situation. On the surface, this may seem a little hard to believe, but it is rare in the corporate world that ethical decisions are purely black and white. Whether it is okay to help yourself to the petty cash drawer is a simple answer. But what about an employee who catches a superior manipulating data in a client report? Of course, the supervisor should be reported. But anyone who has ever been in that situation knows there are multiple variables to consider first. That is where education comes in. Employees who understand business ethics are able to make decisions that protect themselves and the company overall.

The same is true in the classroom. Over time, we have discovered that the majority of students who submit papers with plagiarized passages have done so unintentionally. These individuals have labored over their assignments and believe they have incorporated solid research to back up their assertions. We offer an online ‘Plagiarism Checker’ tool to help students identify potentially questionable content and learn proper attribution guidelines. Learning opportunities are the key to avoiding potential ethical missteps.

How can businesses ensure their workers have the latest information on ethical business practices?
Unfortunately, in the business world most ethical grievances will not be excused for a lack of knowledge. Thus, it is extremely important that managers take ethics training very seriously. There are a variety of ways managers can keep staff abreast of developments in business ethics. One is to pass along relevant articles from industry journals and other publications. Such information can also be reiterated during staff meetings and posted in common areas.

Beyond these ideas, I cannot overstate the importance of education in ensuring ethical business operations. Education can come in the form of formal training or degree programs for workers, or from workshops tailored to discuss the ethical demands of a company’s industry. Either way, the most successful training will allow employees to interact and role-play through scenarios involving potential ethical dilemmas.

How does this team-learning environment help employees learn about ethics?
The setting allows workers to practice their responses in a safe environment, and it also encourages dialogue among individuals with different experiences and backgrounds. Open discussion lets participants explore and dissect potential responses based on their unique reference points, and helps shed light on diverse points of view. This is especially important because there is rarely a single best approach to a tough ethical situation.

With regard to ethics, how has the technology evolution affected the business community?
Today’s sophisticated technologies make it easier than ever for businesses to make poor ethical decisions. From realigning budget reports to borrowing proposals or other documents found online, employees have access to resources that can ‘help’ them into dangerous territory. Businesses can manage the potential impact by clearly defining technology use policies and implementing formal standards of operation that prohibit such behavior. It is also worth noting that corporate leadership can provide reinforcement by strictly adhering to its guidelines and setting expectations for stellar ethical standards.

ELDEN MONDAY is the vice president for the Pennsylvania campuses of University of Phoenix, a national leader in higher education for working adults, offering both campus-based and online programs. Reach Monday at elden.monday@phoenix.edu or (610) 989-0880, ext. 1131. Additional information also available at www.phoenix.edu/philadelphia.