Business ethics not a cut and dried issue, says chair

by Sean Kelly

Staff writer

When an employee of a local firm was caught on video stealing a pickup truck full of goods from his company's depot, he was fired immediately. But the union grieved on his behalf, and reluctantly, the company gave him his job back.

Assoc. Prof. Wayne Norman, the first holder of the Centre for Applied Ethics' Chair in Business Ethics in the Faculty of Commerce and Business Administration, has been confronting his MBA students with real-life scenarios such as this one, which was discovered by one of Norman's colleagues.

He says many students see this problem as an example of what's wrong with unions, but Norman challenges them to look beyond the basic dilemma.

In this example, it turns out that just before the meeting to hear the grievance, the union presented the company with a long list of "thefts" by managers. These thefts ranged from the president having improvements done to his property by employees on company time to managers padding expense accounts. The union pleaded that theft was tolerated in the company.

"The employees' theft was obviously inexcusable, but I think the union had a point," says Norman. "The managers no doubt felt entitled to a freebie now and then. But the result was an organization that had abdicated moral authority."

Norman says he wants his students to learn that business ethics is not just about exhorting people to do the right thing, or giving them theories to help resolve nasty ethical dilemmas.

"It is most importantly about understanding how to foster an ethically sensitive organizational culture."

With those lessons in mind, Norman says he plans to write a "radically different business ethics textbook" -- one focusing less on formulas, and more on the conditions that give rise to ethical problems in the workplace.

There is a tremendous amount of interest in business ethics and questions of moral authority in business, according to Prof. Michael McDonald, director of the Centre for Applied Ethics.

"More and more, business leaders realize that long-term success requires building a sound ethical culture within the organization and in relation to the company's stakeholders in the community," says McDonald.

Acting Dean of Commerce and Business Administration Derek Atkins says no introduction to business would be complete without a significant section of ethics material. He expects Norman's professional expertise and research credentials to enhance the faculty's ethics teaching.

Norman's appointments to the Faculty of Commerce and Business Administration, and the Chair in Business Ethics, follow several years teaching philosophy at the University of Ottawa. His research interests include the ethics of foreign investment as well as ethical problems in large organizations.

The Chair in Business Ethics was endowed by W. Maurice Young, the former chief executive officer of Finning Tractor and Whistler Mountain Ski Company.