The mission of the top ranked(#37 tied, U.S. News and World Report, 2017, #42 Bloomberg Businessweek, 2015) UT Dallas Jindal School full time MBA Program (FTMBA) is to develop cutting edge problem engineers who can think, plan and act strategically to solve complex business problems.
My mission, as their speaker this last week was to instill the criticalness of ethics in business, with the class then going on to formulate their own class code of ethics. No pressure, yet my hope was that I could inspire them to truly understand the fundamental bedrock a code of ethics is to a company.
The 50 students complete their MBA in a 16 month time frame, studying with renowned professors who are well known for their faculty research contributions. The semester starts with Lead Camp, a two week orientation of whirlwind activity which lays the foundation for the students’ career and academic journey. The school also has a connection to many of the Fortune 500 companies which are headquartered in the Dallas Metroplex, which accounts for their 90% placement rate.
In other words, the top achievers who will someday guide the reins of business in the Metroplex and elsewhere are our students. This was my audience and our future. My job, to point them true north. I told them of my experience at Citigroup and emphasized that a large part of the financial crisis could have been prevented if the banks had followed their own published ethics policies and listened to those few employees who tried to warn of the malfeasance and what they saw as blatant ethics violations.
Yet as Dr. Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke University and the author of The Honest Truth About Dishonesty — How We Lie to Everyone, Especially Ourselves whose research shows that even when there is training in ethics and a code of conduct, if employees are not really expected to follow the code and act ethically, then they often do not do so.
I mentioned Marianne Jennings‘, J.D., Professor Emeritus, Arizona State University and the author of The Seven Signs of Ethical Collapse, observations that if there is a conflict of interest, one has a tendency to choose one’s own personal interest in spite of training in ethics unless one is continually reminded of the code. As future business leaders they need to emphasize their company’s codes if they expected better behaviors.
And, I asked they speak up if they saw or suspected wrongdoing, reminding them that innocence or ignoring a situation is not an excuse. Continuing to ask questions may cost them their job. However, if they choose not to ask questions, then they could become complicit in the wrongdoing. I shared the example of what happened to Helen Sharkey of Dynegy Energy, who, unsure in her new position of what was the right thing, did not question her bosses. Ms. Sharkey became complicit in securities fraud and went to prison for not speaking up. Her bosses walked away. It cost Ms. Sharkey her job and her career.
I emphasized, this was not where they wanted to be (prison), so speaking up was imperative.
As Albert Einstein said, “the world is not a dangerous place because of those who do harm but because of those who look at it without doing anything.”
I hope one student and, maybe with a little luck, more than one, listened to some of what I had to say, took it to heart and will make sure his or her future business dealings are always true north.