How business ethics depend on individual values

Missed the Laidley Centre for Business Ethics’ recent events? Learn more in this three-part series by recent BCom graduate Avneet Bhabra about McGill University’s central hub supporting ethical decision-making in business through teaching, academic research and community engagement.

Jo-Ellen Pozner

This past March, the Laidley Centre for Business Ethics (LCBE) hosted the first of its LCBE Ethics in Business Conversations and featured Jo-Ellen Pozner, Assistant Professor at Santa Clara University's Leavey School of Business.

The one-hour discussion, facilitated by McGill Desautels Professor and LCBE Director Lindsay Holmgren, explored how and why business ethics can be considered an oxymoron. For those skeptical of the importance of business ethics, the conversation reconciled the purposes of businesses as shareholder profit-value maximizing institutions and as pillars of community values.

The discussion explored a range of topics, including that if businesses make value-consistent decisions, they can be considered ethical. Prof. Pozner emphasized how we must understand our own values if we want to ensure that we are making ethical decisions. As an individual, do you value honesty? Integrity? Communication? If you act in accordance with these values, then you must be behaving ethically, she posits.

Students challenged this definition during the event’s Q&A. What if a business’s values are unethical, for example putting profit maximization over and above concerns for the environment? Prof. Pozner maintained her position, clarifying that we should first assume good intent and that people are doing the best that they can, and that this may manifest itself in different ways. Everyone has values of some kind, but are some values inherently bad and others inherently good?

Business ethics are learnt, whether as students or in the workforce. To improve skills and engage ethically in business, Prof. Pozner identifies some crucial interventions. First, business ethics education should be integrated into curricula. She argues that it is important for schools to provide students with the opportunity to work through ethical dilemmas that they may come across while on the workforce. If education institutions engage students in this kind of thinking, particularly by encouraging self-reflection, they will better equip them to manage ethical challenges in their careers.

Second, upper management in organizations cannot just talk the talk – they need to walk the walk. Prof. Pozner explains that management is like parenting, whereby examples must be set by our own behaviour. Are managers taking shortcuts? Are they putting tin cans in the garbage? Organizational culture is sticky; it can only shift to the extent that upper management guides a shift in thinking, and this starts with behaving ethically from the top.

For students such as myself now entering the workforce, we often wonder how to evaluate whether an organization is a good fit for us, and one of the dimensions we might use is their ethical practices. Prof. Pozner provided three recommendations towards considering business ethics in one’s career planning:

  1. Don’t take organizational statements at face value. Compare and contrast what an organization claims and what they are portrayed as in media. Is news coverage consistent with what they claim about themselves?
  2. Know your own values. You can only act in accordance with your values if you know what they are!
  3. Work with a mentor who shares similar values. By building your network in this way, you can rely on a solid support system to guide you through any moral dilemmas.

If an ethical business is one that acts in accordance with its own values, it’s important for us to understand ourselves and our values before committing to an organization. After all, a business is made up of people. So, to that end, what do you value and how do you see this manifested in the organizations that you are a part of?

Want to hear more about Prof. Pozner’s stance? Tune into the Delve at McGill Desautels podcast featuring McGill Desautels Professor Saku Mantere. Access the conversation and read the Q&A about how ethics fundamentally affects how businesses function.

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