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Ethical Decision Making: Easy in Training, Harder in Reality

Over the course of a workday, people make innumerable decisions ranging in degrees of severity, from critical to mundane. Often times, choices are made in a vacuum and are considered for only as long as it takes until the next intellectual dilemma or distraction demands our attention. A recent piece by Eugene Soltes in Harvard Business Review explores the difficulty around  ethical decision-making, while also exploring the gap between attempts to train or educate people on organizational ethics and the real-world pressures people face when face with an ethical dilemma (or even recognizing that they may be in an ethical quandary).

Soltes, an Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, points to a variety of executive misdoings by ostensibly smart and talented— not to mention prominent— leaders that illustrate that even those under scrutiny and fully aware of their responsibility for shareholder funds can act in self-serving ways that, in retrospect, they realize are obviously unethical. And, as Soltes writes, in hindsight the fact that these were adverse decisions are not lost on  these individuals, but in the moment they failed to consider the impact or consequences.

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Interview with Rashmi Airan: Law, Blindspots, Prison and Redemption

An interview with Rashmi Airan, speaker on ethics, law and culture; leadership and compliance consultant; and growth strategist

 

Background:

Rashmi was a successful lawyer who graduated with honors from Columbia Law School. After working for several major corporations, she launched an independent law practice in Miami, Florida. During the housing boom, she was recruited to work with a local real-estate developer who later engaged in shady business practices. Her involvement resulted in a one year sentence in Federal prison, alongside a $19M judgment against future earnings, required community service hours and 3 years supervised release.  As a mother of two and devoted community activist, Rashmi has reconfigured her subsequent career to focus on growth strategies and leadership/compliance training for firms, corporations, and graduate schools.  She has also become widely known as a public speaker, sharing her story to help illustrate the ethical perils and situations that can result from a drive to succeed and the blindspots created when pursuing a goal.

This interview has been edited and condensed from a conversation on January 19, 2017.

 

1) What are the main takeaways from your story that you want others to know?

I believe there are many reasons why I am telling my story. I want to help people so that they do not find themselves in the same predicament that I was in and make different choices when faced with daily “gray” decisions.  I finally came to a place of peace that I had done something wrong when I gave myself the freedom to forgive.  After I forgave myself, my lessons became clearer. I reflected on different business relationships and the fact that I had not looked into things deeply enough.  I know there are lessons for both young and seasoned professionals. I believe I can enlighten people to the fact that there is a fine line and we must all walk between the two sides of right and wrong and choose to be on the right side of the line.

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Book Summary: The Rule of Nobody

In The Rule of Nobody, Philip Howard describes how bureaucracy is stifling U.S. institutions as well as the spirit of autonomy and free will among Americans. We live within a system whereby layers upon layers of often incomprehensible and inconsistent regulations, mandatory disclosures and requirements create a society that is “governed by dead laws” — meaning that since many of today’s laws are so outdated, they have been rendered irrelevant because layers of new (and sometimes inconsistent) laws have been enacted after them, or they have become otherwise destructive to the social good because they hamper progress. 

The Rule of Nobody [homepage | public library]

By: Philip K. Howard

Summarized by Azish Filabi

The book is packed with examples of inept laws replacing common sense human judgment.  In many cases, government agencies are comprised of well-meaning individuals who can’t apply their common sense and best judgment to resolve the problems they are hired to manage.

His recommendations for restoring human control of democracy and bringing about good government involves a series of reforms (summarized below) towards principles-based regulation, including appointing independent commissions to review and propose amendments to existing laws, to mandatory sunset provisions of all laws with budgetary impact, thus compelling Congress to consider the present needs of constituents when allocating expenditures.    

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Behavioral Ethics: From nudges to norms

Scott Killingsworth, Senior Counsel with Bryan Cave, LLP, writes a broadly applicable and thought-provoking piece on nudges vs. culture. Killingsworth illustrates how a strong ethical culture can take the place of consistent, ongoing nudges and shows that culture should be considered through the lens of not just preventing ethical mishaps, but also about creating a positive environment “where the good apples can thrive”. 

We encourage you to read this informative article >>

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Featured Ethics [and Sustainability] Scholar for January: Tensie Whelan

Interview with Tensie Whelan, Clinical Professor and Director of the Center for Sustainable Business at NYU Stern

 

Why was now the right time to launch the Center for Sustainable Business here at Stern? Why was Stern the right home for this important center? 

Business manages the majority of the resources on the planet.  In the US, for example, business is responsible for $18 trillion of GDP and government and civil society $3 trillion. If we wish to solve the environmental and social challenges before us, we need business to play a leadership role. Stern, with its location in the world’s financial center, and its award-winning faculty and students who are focused on finance, can play a unique role in addressing the structural problems of shareholder capitalism and the Center for Sustainable Business can assist the transition to a capitalism better suited to the needs of the 21st century.

The moment is right because a growing number of business leaders such as Paul Polman at Unilever, John Mackey at Whole Foods and Larry Fink at BlackRock are questioning the benefits of short-termism and are turning to their broader purpose in society.  These business leaders need research, networks and employees who can help them on this journey and CSB can be a key partner.

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Crosspost: The (Il)legitimacy of Compliance?

Cross posted from NYU Law's PCCE's Compliance & Enforcement blog.

 

Each new compliance scandal triggers something of a “what were they thinking” response among those who consider it self-evident that sensible people inside a business organization would try hard to avoid behaviors that can bring such serious legal and reputation harm.  So it is with the current subject of fascination, Wells Fargo. “Salespeople” (many of whom were branch employees serving customers’ basic banking needs) created millions of unauthorized customer accounts of various sorts in order to generate fee revenues.  While some corporate legal violations are implicitly blessed from above because any sanctions can be seen as just the cost of doing business, such was probably not the case here.

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2016 End of Year Letter from Jonathan Haidt

Dear Friends:

2016 has been a year of extraordinary change. Many of these changes make our mission – to help companies strengthen their ethical cultures using behavioral science research – more vital than ever.

Consider just these three facts:

  1. Populist movements around the world are usually antagonistic towards large corporations, which they often perceive as engaging in predatory behavior
  2. The recent U.S. election likely means a new and lighter-touch approach to regulation and compliance, particularly in the financial services industry
  3. The Brexit vote means that Britain must quickly decide upon its own approach to regulation.

Putting these together: The world is hungry for new ideas on how to improve business ethics in ways that do not rely as heavily as before on detailed rules formulated by legislatures and regulators. There is a desperate need to help businesses become more self-regulating, in ways that will protect multiple stakeholders while increasing the dynamism and profitability of the business.

That is exactly what Ethical Systems is doing and we have made great progress towards our goals this year.

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2016 Collaborators in the News: A Year of Many Achievements

2016 was a year of many achievements for our growing collaborator network. We invite you to browse a highlight list of the research, articles, appearances and talks that helped advance our mission and promote a greater understanding of ethics, decision making, and ethical systems design.

Browse our collaborators and their highlights and achievements from this year >>

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MBA: Means Being Aware to Short-Termism

It takes a commitment to business and a desire to better oneself that motivates earning a Master in Business Administration. The degree is seen as a passport to financial success and business leadership, a necessary piece of the puzzle should you want to attain keys to the executive suite.

Yet, a new study by Danny Miller, research professor at HEC Montreal and Xiaowei Xu, an assistant professor at the University of Rhode Island shows that for MBA-holders who go on to lead companies and achieve a level of recognition in mainstream media, self-interested behavior becomes more apparent and their firms can suffer as a result.

Acknowledging that earning an MBA does not cause people to be any less reliable, honest or ethical than others, Miller and Xu’s findings have implications for executive compensation, the dangers of short-termism and how the drive to be distinguished among peers may create a blind spot when thinking about other areas of the business.

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Ethical Systems Design: Crosspost from AuditFutures

ethics-conf-p2Cross posted from the AuditFutures Blog. See original post here.

 

On 23rd November, we hosted a conference exploring the concept of organisational culture and what systemic approaches we can take to foster ethical culture within organisations, particularly professional service firms. This interdisciplinary conference engaged around 100 leading international academics, business leaders and accounting professionals in a holistic discussion on the significant role of culture in organisations.

The event built on our Future Firms project which explores in a systemic way the interdependencies of the different aspects of the firm: culture, governance, technology, services, structure, and people and what this means for the future of .

Our Ethics by Design Conference explored the key challenges and trends, faced through the interaction between the three levels of employees, the organisation and society. Participants explored the possible design ideas that can be implemented to work towards overcoming these challenges and forming a more ethical culture.

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