Archive for the ‘trust’ Category

Should Penn State’s Board Resign?

In the wake of the Sandusky sex-abuse scandal the question has arisen whether Penn State University’s Board of Trustees should tender its collective resignation. And now, following the death of Coach Joe Paterno on Sunday, the question has taken on additional emotional resonance. The university’s Faculty Senate is scheduled to discuss a motion to strike an independent committee to investigate the Board’s role in the whole affair, and indeed has seen at least one motion calling for the entire Board’s resignation.

So, should the members of the Board be asked to resign? And if not, should they do so of their own volition?

To answer these questions, here are some questions that need to be considered:

Fist, did indeed the Board fail in its fiduciary (‘trust-based’) duties? It’s worth noting that the Board has been under fire from two different directions, here. Some think the Board failed in not staying sufficiently ‘on top of’ the Sandusky situation, and in resting satisfied with whatever dribbles of information the university administration saw fit to feed them. (The only detailed account I’ve read so far paints the Board in a rather sympathetic light, in this regard.)

Others think the Board failed in firing — in their eyes, scapegoating — the beloved Paterno. Both sides think the Board screwed up, but for very different reasons. Of course, both can be right at the same time. Perhaps the Board has just generally done a bad job, first by letting the situation get out of hand and then second by botching the task of responding to it. Rather than cancelling each other out, maybe these two sets of complaints just compound each other.

Next, we need to ask, if the Board failed, was it a failure of people or a failure of structure? A board, after all, is both an institutional structure and a set of people occupying that structure.

If it was a failure of structure (and, as governance expert Richard Leblanc wrote back in November, there are serious problems with how Penn State’s board is configured) then there’s little reason to think that a change of personnel on the Board is either necessary or sufficient to fix the problem. And if instead it was a failure of people, then getting rid of them all is a blunt, but perhaps effective, way to solve the problem — providing, of course, that the new people brought in to replace them are better.

Of course, the problem is that it’s difficult to distinguish between a failure of people and a failure of structure, in a case like this. Perhaps people better-suited to the job would have risen above the confines of a poorly-structured board, or lobbied to have its structure revised. Human behaviour and institutional structure shape each other.

And finally, regardless of the above questions about the sources of failure, it might be the case that the removal or resignation of the Board is necessary in order to restore public confidence. That is, even if the individuals currently on the Board are not in any way to blame, the fact that key stakeholders have lost faith in the Board might be sufficient grounds for calling for the entire Board to go. Without the confidence of key stakeholders, any Board is going to find it hard to do its job.

But then, while the current Board certainly faces challenges, so would an entirely new Board. The loss of continuity that would result from a 100% change in membership could seriously impair the Board’s functioning, and make it even more reliant on — and susceptible to control by — university administrators. There’s a good reason why well-governed boards have careful plans in place to make sure that new blood is brought in regularly, rather than en masse. In the end, it seems to me that the best prescription is this. The Board of Trustess at Penn State needs to see substantial structural change. It also needs enough new blood to restore confidence, while retaining enough of the old guard to ensure continuity. Beyond that, the Board is just going to have to do its best to muddle through whatever challenges lie ahead, with whatever strengths and limits it possesses, just like any other board.

The Social Responsibilities of Lawyers

If there’s serious academic topic and social issue that might generate more stupid jokes than Business Ethics, it’s Legal Ethics. Which is too bad, since it’s an important topic. And that’s the topic raised by a recent story in the Boston Globe about lawyers who specialize in defending drivers accused of drunk driving.

Anyone with a broad interest in business ethics is almost inevitably going to run into questions of legal ethics, for a couple of reasons. One reason is that many corporations employ lawyers, and so businesses have to know about the ethical constraints on these very special employees. The other reason is that lawyers who don’t work for big companies are, themselves, either partners in law firms or owners of their own small businesses. And whether you work for a business or run one, questions arise regarding the intersection of, and perhaps conflict between, legal ethics on one hand and business ethics on the other.

One of the crucial ethical question that must inevitably arise for lawyers is this: what are a lawyer’s social responsibilities? In other words, what are a lawyer’s obligations to the society she lives in, while she goes about trying to ply her trade and make a living?

There’s a very strong argument to be made to the effect that the key way in which lawyers serve society — their key social responsibility — is by serving their clients well. Ours is an adversarial legal system, under which all parties to a dispute are entitled to legal representation. A key presumption of the system is that we are most likely to arrive at a just outcome if all parties to the dispute are represented by lawyers who vigourously pursue their clients’ interest. So the morality of whole system effectively stands or falls with the practice of zealous advocacy. We can never be 100% confident in the outcome of a trial, perhaps, but at least we know each side had its bulldog.

Now, it’s widely recognized among legal scholars that there are limits to zealous advocacy. Lawyers are forbidden from directly breaking the law in attempting to help their clients, and from derailing the court’s processes by, for example, suborning perjury or destroying evidence. But beyond that, lawyers are entitled — indeed, required — to do their damnedest.

Yale legal scholar Robert W Gordon wrote a nice piece a few years back called “Why Lawyers Can’t Just Be Hired Guns.” Gordon’s basic argument is essentially that lawyers play too important a role in modern society for them to think of themselves as solely beholden to their clients. In particular, Gordon argues that a lawyer’s right to engage in zealous advocacy only makes sense to the extent that lawyers also help support the system within which such advocacy ends up being constructive:

…lawyers’ work on behalf of clients positively requires—both for its justification and its successful functioning for the benefit of those same clients in the long run—that lawyers also help maintain and refresh the public sphere, the infrastructure of law and cultural convention that constitutes the cement of society.

(You’ll find Goron’s piece in a very good book called Ethics in Practice: Lawyers’ Roles, Responsibilities, and Regulation, edited by Deborah L. Rhode.)

It’s worth noting that Gordon’s argument about social responsibility is essentially an argument about the limits that apply to the fundamental moral obligation that lawyers have to faithfully play their role in the larger legal system. And it’s equally worth noting that that obligation cannot be described without reference to that system, and to the role we want lawyers to play within it.

There’s a general lesson, here. We shouldn’t think of ethics strictly in terms of the human micro-implications of a particular situation. We need also to look carefully at the roles individuals play in important social structures, and the roles those structures play in society as a whole.

Stem Cell Fraud

Stem cell science is pretty sexy. And as the saying goes, “sex sells.” And if something sells, someone is liable to make a buck off it, whether it’s right to do so or not.

See this opinion piece (in The Scientist) by Zubin Master and David B. Resnik: Reforming Stem Cell Tourism.

As with many new areas of technological advancements, stem cell research has received its fair share of hype. Though much of the excitement is warranted, and the potential of stem cells promising, many have used that hype for their own monetary gain. … Young and elderly patients have died from receiving illegitimate stem cell treatments; others have developed tumors following stem cell transplantations….

Master and Resnik point to the need for patient education, and to the limits of international guidelines, but their main focus is on the ethical responsibilities of scientists — including the responsibility not to cooperate in various indirect ways with unscrupulous colleagues. (It is very, very hard to do clinical science in a vacuum, and so isolating unscrupulous scientists may be one way to put them out of business.)

But it’s important to point out that this is as much a story of business ethics as it is of scientific ethics. The unscrupulous individuals preying upon the sick aren’t doing it for free. What these clinics are doing is committing fraud, and endangering their customers in the process.

Now there’s nothing ethically subtle about that. You don’t need a Ph.D. in philosophy to know that fraud is bad. But there’s another, subtler, issue here, namely an underlying theme about the general lack of scientific literacy on the part of consumers and the ability of business to use it to their advantage. Companies of all kinds can do a lot of good in the world by promoting scientific literacy, and by being scrupulously careful about having the facts straight when they present their products to consumers and tell them, “this works.”

Now of course, we’re never going to prevent such behaviour entirely. As long as there are desperate people in the world, there will be snake-oil salesmen eager to make a buck from their misery. But as Master and Resnik suggest, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.

Highest Standards Aren’t Always Best in Ethics

No one wants low ethical standards, but it’s also a mistake to aim at the highest possible standards — at least it can be, depending on what you mean by “highest.”

See, for example, this useful piece on defence contractors, by Noah Shachtman for Wired: Pentagon Probe Will Review Every Darpa Contract

Since Regina Dugan became the director of Darpa [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency], the Pentagon’s top research division has signed millions of dollars’ worth of contracts with her family firm, which in turn owes her at least a quarter-million dollars. It’s an arrangement that has raised eyebrows in the research community, and has now drawn the attention of the Defense Department’s internal auditors and investigators…

The story usefully points out that aiming for the highest possible standards of integrity can also cause trouble:

[A former director’s] bright ethical guidelines had unintended consequences. If a company allowed an employee to take a sabbatical to join Darpa, the firm was essentially blocking itself from millions of dollars in agency research projects.

The result, of course, is that under the old rules the agency risked cutting off useful sources of expertise. That’s not to say that the old rules were worse. It’s just to point out that there’s a legitimate trade-off here.

There’s a very general lesson to be drawn from this. When thinking about ethics, the goal isn’t always to be squeaky-clean. The goal is to find standards that are high enough to merit the trust of relevant stakeholders, and to do so without sacrificing other, possibly-equally important, values.

Consider this graphic, which illustrates the challenge of choosing experts to make decisions. On one hand, we want people with real expertise. On the other hand, we want to avoid conflict of interest. That is, we want maximum expertise and minimal risk of bias. So the upper-left quadrant of this graphic is the sweet spot:

conflict of interest: bias and expertise

Note that what we’re looking for here is not the “highest possible” standard of integrity (i.e., the standard that implies the lowest possible risk of bias among decision-makers), but a system that makes the optimal tradeoff between risk of bias, on one hand, and relevant expertise, on the other. The point here is not that we’re trading off ethics and expediency. The point is that we’re trading off competing, ethically-significant values.

The point in thinking about ethics is not to aim at the highest standards, but at the best standards. We do enormous damage both to the functioning of organizations and to people’s willingness to talk openly about ethics when we talk about “high standards” in a way that comes off as unthinkingly pious.

Should Rioters be Fired?

The post-Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver last week have generated a minor landslide of commentary. Much of it has focused on just who the malefactors were. In an age of social media, this has amounted to more than mere speculation: the identities of quite a few of the trouble-makers have come to light. Those who participated in the riots have thus brought very public shame upon themselves and their city. But what about the shame brought upon their employers?

Over at the “Double Hearsay” law blog, the question is asked from a legal point of view: Can employers fire Vancouver rioters? The short version of the legal analysis there is this. Any employer can fire an employee “without cause” as long as they give proper notice. In order to fire without giving a couple weeks’ notice, an employer has to have “cause:”

Generally speaking, an employee can be fired for his private conduct if that conduct is “wholly incompatible” with the proper discharge of his employment duties, or if it would tend to prejudice the employer….

The latter possibility is the relevant one here. If an employee participates in a riot and is widely known a) to have participated in shameful behaviour and b) to be your employee, then the employee has effectively done something “prejudicial” (i.e., likely to negatively effect your business).

OK, so that’s the legal side. Labour law draws a reasonably clear line around what you as an employer can do, and what the court will support your having done. But that still leaves open the question, should you even attempt to fire an employee who you know to have participated in a riot, say like the recent one in Vancouver or last year’s at the G20 in Toronto?

Here are a few quick considerations:

1) The legal issue of an employee behaving in a way that is “prejudicial” to the employer is also of course a very reasonable ethical consideration. A riot like the one in Vancouver is accompanied by significant public outrage, and guilt by association is a very real problem. In many industries, a business lives or dies by its reputation. As Warren Buffett has said, “Lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding. Lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless.”

2) By participating — even somewhat passively, let’s say — in a riot, an employee reveals quite a lot about his own character and judgment. Do you really want someone with that little judgment working for you? Your company, no matter how laid back its corporate culture, has some sort of authority structure. It’s fair to ask just how suitable an employee is to work within any authority structure when they’ve publicly egged on another human being in burning cop cars or assaulting firefighters.

3) Even from an ethical point of view, the legal notion of “due process” is relevant. So if you’re considering firing someone for taking part in a riot, you can’t in all fairness do so based on mere hearsay, or without giving him a chance to defend himself. The right process is at least as important as the right outcome.

4) Finally, it is worth considering whether there are alternatives to firing. Maybe being laid off for a few weeks is sufficient. Or perhaps the employee can demonstrate his contrition by doing volunteer work. But it should be remembered that the solution has to fit the reason for firing in the first place. If your worry is that participation in a riot demonstrates a fundamental lack of judgment, then volunteer work isn’t going to erase that worry.

As a lawyer friend of mine put it, “rioting seems to strike at the core of social order.” And social order is at the core of business. It’s not unreasonable to think that participation in a riot is a disqualification for employment — but such a conclusion still has to be implemented prudently and fairly.

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Thanks to Dan Michaluk for tweeting this story and bringing it to my attention.

Business Ethics Lessons from G20 Cop’s Arrest

What lessons can we take from a story about police brutality and apply to the world of business?

As many readers will know, the meeting of the G20 here in Toronto last summer was not, on the whole, a happy experience. Protestors, both peaceful and otherwise, were plentiful, and there were serious questions about the way the Government, and in particular the Toronto Police Service, conducted themselves. No one came out looking very good. Protestors torched cop cars and broke shop windows. Some of the tactics used to quell the riot resulted in accusations of police brutality.

Nearly a year later, after a fraught investigation by Toronto Police’s Special Investigations Unit, one police officer has been charged with assault. See this story by Jennifer Yang, for the Toronto Star: Toronto police officer charged in G20 assault:

After nearly one year, two closed investigations, and a public squabbling match between Toronto police and the agency tasked with investigating them, criminal charges have finally been laid in the case of Dorian Barton.

On Friday, the Special Investigations Unit charged Toronto police Const. Glenn Weddell with assault causing bodily harm in connection with Barton’s arrest during the G20 summit last June. The charge came on the same day the Toronto Star publicly revealed Weddell was the previous unnamed officer photographed during Barton’s violent arrest….

Strictly speaking, this isn’t a story about business ethics, but still it provides plenty of fodder for discussion of issues that are centrally important to business ethics. Issues such as:

  • Who watches the watchers? Any regulatory system — whether a system of policing criminality or a system of vetting new pharmaceuticals — requires safeguards to make sure that those who wield regulatory power wield it wisely. That’s why police forces have systems for hearing complaints from citizens and for investigating wrongdoing by their own officers. And it’s also why regulatory decisions are typically subject to parliamentary oversight and judicial review.
  • With great power comes great responsibility. Self-regulation is crucial for those given the power to enforce rules. Such self-regulation can take many forms. First and foremost, it needs to include individual self-regulation and the adoption of principles of integrity and good conduct. But individual ethics needs to be bolstered by an informal system of peers reminding each other of their obligations. When one regulatory bureaucrat or police officer edges too close to crossing a line, it is essential that colleagues be ready to point out that “That’s not how we do things around here.”
  • What are the limits of team loyalty? It is no exaggeration to say that modern civilization is built on something akin to teamwork. And the number one challenge in literally every organization involves getting a number of people with different personalities, talents, and points of view, to work together effectively. Fostering loyalty is a key part of that. But loyalty must have limits. Lawyers are supposed to act as zealous advocates, but are not allowed to suborn perjury. Police and soldiers and firefighters often depend on teamwork for their very lives, but they jeopardize their social value if they put fraternal loyalty above the public good. And corporate employees are expected to help build shareholder value, but not to break the law in doing so.

One of the worst mental habits that can be adopted by people who proclaim an interest in business ethics is that of thinking that the ethical issues found in business are categorically different from those found in other walks of life. Commercial contexts do raise a number of special issues, but we can learn a lot about those issues by thinking about the ethical issues that arise in seemingly quite different domains.

Buffett, Sokol, and Virtue Ethics

Warren Buffett (photo by Mark Hirschey)

What kind of person do you want to be? What kind of businesspeople do you think worthy of imitation?

The world’s most successful investor, Warren Buffett, was recently caught up in a scandal. He himself is not accused of any wrongdoing, though some have accused him of responding to the scandal — one involving a senior employee of his, one David Sokol — in a lackadaisical manner.

For the basics of the story, see here:
Berkshire doesn’t plan big changes after scandal (by Josh Funk, for the AP)

Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett says he doesn’t think his reputation has been hurt much by a former top executive’s questionable investment in Lubrizol shortly before Berkshire announced plans to buy the chemical company….

Sokol is accused of a form of insider trading, essentially a kind of betrayal that is unethical at best, and illegal at worst. Now, Sokol himself is, not surprisingly, keeping pretty quiet, and speaking only through his lawyer. I’m more interested, at this point, in Buffett’s response, and what it says about his character. I’m not the first person to suggest that you can learn a lot about a person by the way he or she responds to a crisis. But when the man in the spotlight happens to be one of the world’s most successful businessmen, there’s some reason to think that the lessons learned might just be more interesting than most.

For more about Buffett’s response, see here: Buffett Takes Sharper Tone in Sokol Affair (by Michael J. De La Merced, for the NYT.)

Despite the critics, I think Buffett comes out of this looking pretty good. To begin, Buffett gets points for demonstrating his loyalty to a long-serving employee:

[Buffett] was harsh in his assessment of Mr. Sokol’s trading actions, he pointedly declined to personally attack Mr. Sokol, instead highlighting the executive’s years of service and good performance.

Buffett also has a sense of context and proportion. Not that the wrong of which Sokol is accused is small. But it is wise, and ethically correct I think, for Buffett to resist the urge to pounce on an employee who has, in Buffett’s own experience (up until the present crisis), been a diligent and morally-upstanding employee:

“What I think bothers some people is that there wasn’t some big sense of outrage” in the news release, Mr. Buffett said. “I plead guilty to that. But this fellow had done a lot of good.”

Buffett’s business partner, Charles Munger, likewise gets points for showing restraint:

“I feel like you don’t want to make important decisions in anger,” Mr. Munger said, defending Berkshire’s press release. “You can always tell a man to go to hell tomorrow.”

All of this is set against a background of Buffett insisting on the importance of having a reputation for integrity in business. Buffett is no slacker when it comes to ethical standards. The NYT piece quotes Buffett from 20 years ago, on the topic of the significance of reputation in business:

“Lose money for the firm, and I will be understanding. Lose a shred of reputation for the firm, and I will be ruthless.”

Finally, it’s worth pointing out that this focus on Buffett’s character, and on the example he sets, represents an importantly different approach to business ethics. The approach here is akin to what philosophers call “virtue ethics,” a stream of thought that goes back to Aristotle. The idea here is that, rather than focusing on principles (or, more cautiously, in addition to focusing on principles), what we really ought to do when thinking about ethics is to focus on character. Rather than asking, “what rules apply to this situation?” this way of thinking asks, “what would a good person do in a situation like this?” And in between crisis points, we should be asking, “when a crisis comes, what kind of person do I want to pattern my behaviour after?” I don’t know nearly enough about Mr Buffett to hold him up as a moral exemplar, but I think that the kind of character he has displayed in the Sokol affair is worthy of emulation.

Honesty, Reputation, and Ethics

The connection between reputation and ethics is complex. A pattern of ethical behaviour is clearly essential to establishing a good reputation, which for a company means a reputation as the kind of company people want to do business with. But hold on. All that’s really essential, from a business point of view, is to be perceived as ethical. But there are two ways of reading that ancient point. The cynical way is to say that all that matters in business is to give people the impression that you’re ethical, and that can be done through good PR or even outright misrepresentation. The less cynical way of reading that is that you’ve got not just to be ethical, in the sense of doing what you think is the right thing to do; you’ve also got to convince key stakeholders that you’ve done the right thing.

Take honesty, for example. Honesty matters, but so do public perceptions of honesty. In that regard, see this useful piece on corporate disclosure, by Steven M Davidoff for the NY Times: In Corporate Disclosure, a Murky Definition of Material.

Most of the piece is an exploration of the legal standard of “materiality.” Materiality is essentially about relevance. Publicly-traded companies are obligated to reveal certain information to the investing public (typically through filings with the relevant regulatory agency). But not everything they do needs to be reported — not everything is sufficiently important — and there are lots of legitimate reasons why companies don’t want to reveal any- and everything. Figuring out just what needs to be disclosed is a difficult legal problem. But towards the end of the piece, Davidoff argues that companies should avoid focusing on mere legalities. As Davidoff points out:

Companies need to understand that information disclosure is not just a legal game. Failure to disclose important information on a timely basis can harm a company’s reputation.

So, it’s all about reputation, about ‘optics’? “What about ethics?” you ask. But consider: why would a failure of disclosure harm a company’s reputation? In part, it would do so because (or if) the failure harms people’s interests. But even then, harming someone’s interests won’t immediately harm reputation. If, for example, Ford designs a new SUV that’s so good that sales of GM’s SUV’s fall, putting thousands of GM employees out of work, well, that’s bad for GM’s employees, but the harm done to them by Ford is not going to damage Ford’s reputation. Because, after all, the harm done to the employees was the result of fair competitive practices on the part of Ford. A company’s behaviour is only going to hurt its reputation if some critical mass of people see that behaviour as unethical. So in the end, even a concern about “mere reputation” has to be grounded in ethical principles.

Insider Trading at the FDA

A scientist employed by the US Food and Drug Administration has been arrested and charged with insider trading.

Here’s the story, from Diana B. Henriques at the New York Times: U.S. Chemist Is Charged With Insider Stock Trades

A 15-year veteran of the federal Food and Drug Administration and his 25-year-old son were arrested on Tuesday and charged with systematically using confidential information about pending drug applications to reap millions in illegal trading profits since 2007.

As part of its drug-approval process, the FDA is given sensitive information by companies seeking such approval. And the status of a company’s application within the FDA’s own decision-making is itself sensitive information. Since FDA approval is essential to getting a drug to market, the announcement that a company’s drug has been granted, or denied, approval by the FDA can have a huge impact on the value of a company’s stock. And what FDA chemist Cheng Yi Liang did is to use information available only to FDA insiders to make profitable trades on the stock of companies then seeking FDA approval.

Just what was so wrong with what went on here?

In a statement announcing the case, Lanny A. Breuer, the assistant attorney general for the criminal division, said: “Cheng Yi Liang was entrusted with privileged information to perform his job of ensuring the health and safety of his fellow citizens. According to the complaint, he and his son repeatedly violated that trust to line their own pockets.”

Now Mr Breuer is clearly engaging in a bit of prosecutorial rhetoric. He’s right of course that Cheng Yi Liang was entrusted with privileged information, but there’s no obvious reason to think that his use of that information for personal gain jeopardized anyone’s health or safety. But fair enough: Mr Breuer is playing his role in an adversarial system, and that licenses a certain amount of hyperbole.

But what really is wrong with the kind of insider trading that Cheng Yi Liang engaged in? The precise worry about insider trading is the subject of some debate, and I’ve blogged about that before. (See: Ethics of Insider Trading.)

There are several ways we could get at just what was unethical about what Cheng Yi Liang did. One worry is that he profited unjustly, gaining money that he didn’t earn and had no right to. Also, in engaging in insider trading, he traded on information not accessible to others. That means that the people he traded with were at an unfair advantage, and likely lost money as a result. It also means that, subject as it was to significant information asymmetries, the market in which he traded was rendered slightly less efficient, as a whole.

There is of course another ethical worry: if chemists working for the FDA take a personal financial interest in the fate of various approvals, that could quite easily corrupt the work they do. In other words, it puts such a chemist into a conflict of interest. In a conflict of interest, what is fundamentally at stake is our trust in an individual’s judgment. If FDA scientists have a personal stake in their scientific work, then we have reason to doubt their judgment. And, worse, if the judgment of FDA scientists becomes subject to doubt, then the public ends up having a reason (though perhaps not a sufficient reason) to doubt the work of the FDA as a whole.

Russian Business Ethics

We can learn a lot about the fundamental nature of business ethics by looking at its operation in various countries at different levels of economic development and with very different histories. Former members of the USSR are a good place to start. Russia, for example, was once at the heart of the Soviet empire, yet today — 20 years after the fall of that empire — Russia continues to struggle. The country’s per capita GDP is middling (i.e., about 1/3 of American GDP), and the economy has been growing steadily for years, but it’s far from free of problems. Law and order (including the functioning of its basic democratic institutions) continues to be a challenge there. Note also that Russia fares very badly on Transparency International’s Corruption Index.

So what about the role of business ethics in civilizing (and hopefully growing) the Russian economy?

See this story by Khristina Narizhnaya, for the Moscow Times: Business Ethics Get Codified

Business ethics are improving in Russia, on paper at least.

More local companies are emulating Western standards and adopting ethics codes to help them operate in a corrupt environment and create the appearance of trustworthiness.

Such codes regulate everything a company’s employees do, from how they dress to how they act in case a bribe is offered….

In the last three years, state companies, including Sberbank and Rosneft, have established codes for their workers as part of President Dmitry Medvedev’s initiative to increase transparency. Gazprom has begun putting together its ethics guidelines, which could take more than a year to deploy. Private companies have followed suit….

The entire piece is interesting and well worth reading, but I think couple of issues in particular are worth thinking about. First, what is the point of all this explicit attention to ethics? Interestingly, at least some Russian business people seem to be aware that ethics is a fundamental building block for real success in business:

“It is good for the image — and clients, investors and partners respond with trust,” said Econika chief executive Andrei Iliopulo.

(The reference to “image” is a distraction, there. Iliopulo’s main point is about trust.)

Others see ethics as an absolute necessity on a macro scale, for the Russian economy as a whole:

Some experts see the ethics code trend as an example of transforming the economic model from wild capitalism to socially responsible business.

“Business feels this need and tries to fulfill it,” said Alexander Sergeyev, a professor at the School of Higher Economics. “It might seem strange, but people like to live by the rules….”

And then there’s the question of scope, and focus. What are the key issues to focus on? As the story notes, ethics codes can cover everything from conflict of interest to social responsibility:

[British-Russian conglomerate] TNK-BP’s code outlines a set of principles covering ethical conduct, employee behavior, external relationships, health, safety, security and environmental performance, control and finance.

That’s quite a range of issues. And when thinking about a country still struggling to “find its feet” in terms of business ethics, we might well want to ask about priority-setting. So, question for discussion: of the various issues mentioned above, which one should Russian businesses be focusing on? I’m not suggesting single-mindedness. But for the good of the Russian population as a whole, which business ethics issues is likely to be the most important?

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(For more on the importance of business ethics for economic development, see Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen’s “Does Business Ethics Make Economic Sense?”)

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