How Organizations Influence Ethical Conduct
How can organizations encourage ethical business behavior?
People choose between right and wrong based on their personal code of ethics. They are also influenced by the ethical environment created by their employers. Consider the following headlines:
Investment advisor Bernard Madoff sentenced to 150 years in prison for swindling clients out of more than $65 billion.
Former United Airlines CEO Jeff Smisek leaves the company after a federal investigation into whether United tried to influence officials at the Port Authority of New York.
Renaud Laplanche, the founder of Lending Club, loses his job because of faulty practices and conflicts of interest at the online peer-to-peer lender.
Wells Fargo CEO John Stumpf fired after company employees opened more than 2 million fake accounts to meet aggressive sales targets.3
As these actual stories illustrate, poor business ethics can create a very negative image for a company, can be expensive for the firm and/or the executives involved, and can result in bankruptcy and jail time for the offenders. Organizations can reduce the potential for these types of liability claims by educating their employees about ethical standards, by leading through example, and through various informal and formal programs.
Leading by Example
Employees often follow the examples set by their managers. That is, leaders and managers establish patterns of behavior that determine what’s acceptable and what’s not within the organization. While Ben Cohen was president of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, he followed a policy that no one could earn a salary more than seven times that of the lowest-paid worker. He wanted all employees to feel that they were equal. At the time he resigned, company sales were $140 million, and the lowest-paid worker earned $19,000 per year. Ben Cohen’s salary was $133,000, based on the “seven times” rule. A typical top executive of a $140 million company might have earned 10 times Cohen’s salary. Ben Cohen’s actions helped shape the ethical values of Ben & Jerry’s.
Offering Ethics Training Programs
In addition to providing a system to resolve ethical dilemmas, organizations also provide formal training to develop an awareness of questionable business activities and practice appropriate responses. Many companies have some type of ethics training program. The ones that are most effective, like those created by Levi Strauss, American Express, and Campbell Soup Company, begin with techniques for solving ethical dilemmas such as those discussed earlier. Next, employees are presented with a series of situations and asked to come up with the “best” ethical solution. One of these ethical dilemmas is shown in Table 2.1. According to a recent survey by the Ethics Resource Center, more than 80 percent of U.S. companies provide some sort of ethics training for employees, which may include online activities, videos, and even games.4
An Ethical Dilemma Used for Employee Training
Bill Gannon was a middle manager of a large manufacturer of lighting fixtures in Newark, New Jersey. Bill had moved up the company ladder rather quickly and seemed destined for upper management in a few years. Bill’s boss, Dana Johnson, had been pressuring him about the semiannual reviews concerning Robert Talbot, one of Bill’s employees. Dana, it seemed, would not accept any negative comments on Robert’s evaluation forms. Bill had found out that a previous manager who had given Robert a bad evaluation was no longer with the company. As Bill reviewed Robert’s performance for the forthcoming evaluation period, he found many areas of subpar performance. Moreover, a major client had called recently complaining that Robert had filled a large order improperly and then had been rude to the client when she called to complain.
What ethical issues does the situation raise?
What courses of action could Bill take? Describe the ethics of each course.
Should Bill confront Dana? Dana’s boss?
What would you do in this situation? What are the ethical implications?
Establishing a Formal Code of Ethics
Most large companies and thousands of smaller ones have created, printed, and distributed codes of ethics. In general, a code of ethics provides employees with the knowledge of what their firm expects in terms of their responsibilities and behavior toward fellow employees, customers, and suppliers. Some ethical codes offer a lengthy and detailed set of guidelines for employees. Others are not really codes at all but rather summary statements of goals, policies, and priorities. Some companies have their codes framed and hung on office walls, included as a key component of employee handbooks, and/or posted on their corporate websites.
Examples of company codes of ethics:
Do codes of ethics make employees behave in a more ethical manner? Some people believe that they do. Others think that they are little more than public relations gimmicks. If senior management abides by the code of ethics and regularly emphasizes the code to employees, then it will likely have a positive influence on behavior.
The “100 Best Corporate Citizens” as ranked by Corporate Responsibility magazine are selected based on seven categories, including employee relations, human rights, corporate governance (including code of ethics), philanthropy and community support, financial performance, environment, and climate change.5 The top corporate citizens in 2017 were:
Altria Group, Inc.
Campbell Soup Company
Cisco Systems, Inc.
Hormel Foods Corp.
Lockheed Martin Corp.
Campbell’s Adds CSR to Its Recipe
The Campbell Soup Company is no longer just about traditional cans of processed soup. Under the guidance of its management team, particularly its former CEO Denise Morrison (Morrison retired from Campbell’s in July of 2018), Campbell’s has undergone a transformation that includes a strong emphasis on organics and fresh food—and a large serving of corporate citizenship.
Named one of the Best Corporate Citizens by Corporate Responsibility magazine in 2017, Campbell’s is working to make sustainability and transparency part of its business DNA, and this culture shift has had an important influence on the company’s business strategies.
Morrison, who took over as CEO in 2011, is a firm believer in the company’s central vision: real food that matters for life’s moments. “We can make a profit and make a difference, and we are doing both through our business . . . in a way that’s authentic, that’s transparent, and that truly matters,” she explains.
Under Morrison’s watch, the company recently acquired several fresh food and organic companies, including Bolthouse Farms, one of the largest suppliers of fresh carrots in the United States, and Garden Fresh Gourmet, which produces a top line of fresh salsa and hummus. Tracking the strong change in consumer preference for healthier food, Campbell’s also recently acquired Plum Organics, a line of organic baby food products, which should help solidify the company’s reputation for fresh ingredients with millennials and their families.
The company’s transformation from a processed food giant to a major competitor in the fresh food business has also had a positive influence on the company’s bottom line. Campbell’s shareholders have to be pleased with the 20 percent increase in the company’s stock price over the past two years, as the markets, competitors, and consumers take notice of the company’s strong commitment to sustainability.
Inherent in the company’s reinvention is the strong emphasis on corporate citizenship—doing good and giving back seem to be top priorities for Campbell’s. In addition to acquiring sustainable and fresh food companies, Campbell’s has also made a conscious decision to support the communities where their employees live and work. For example, the company launched a healthy communities initiative in Camden, New Jersey, where Campbell’s is headquartered—an urban city that has seen its share of economic and social challenges in the past. In partnership with several local organizations, this initiative has helped fund community gardens, food pantries, nutrition education, and cooking classes that help build healthy communities. The Camden experience has been so successful that the company has expanded the program to other cities where it operates, including Detroit, Michigan, and Norwalk, Connecticut.
The company’s ongoing commitment to fresh food, community involvement, and corporate social responsibility has helped change the narrative when it comes to being a sustainable and ethical organization.
Questions for Discussion
How does Campbell Soup Company’s recent business acquisitions help support its CSR strategies?
Provide examples of how the company’s transformation from a processed food giant to a purveyor of fresh ingredients can help attract a new group of customers.
Making the Right Decision
In many situations, there may be no simple right or wrong answers. Yet there are several questions you can ask yourself, and a couple of self-tests you can do, to help you make the right ethical decision. First, ask yourself, “Are there any legal restrictions or violations that will result from the action?” If so, take a different course of action. If not, ask yourself, “Does it violate my company’s code of ethics?” If so, again find a different path to follow. Third, ask, “Does this meet the guidelines of my own ethical philosophy?” If the answer is “yes,” then your decision must still pass two important tests.
The Feelings Test
You must now ask, “How does it make me feel?” This enables you to examine your comfort level with a particular decision. Many people find that, after reaching a decision on an issue, they still experience discomfort that may manifest itself in a loss of sleep or appetite. Those feelings of conscience can serve as a future guide in resolving ethical dilemmas.
The Newspaper or Social Media Test
The final test involves the front page of the newspaper or social media posts. The question to be asked is how an objective reporter would describe your decision in a front-page newspaper story, an online media site, or a social media platform such as Twitter or Facebook. Some managers rephrase the test for their employees: How will the headline read if I make this decision, or what will be the reaction of my social media followers? This test is helpful in spotting and resolving potential conflicts of interest.