Of course, the ethical sticky wickets are not always as prominent as the Exxon Valdez oil spill or the tire blowouts on Ford Explorers. Theyre more likely to be smaller issues in everyday commerce, Kennelly says. Like how you report the numbers; who you hire and fire; and your résuméhow much puffery is proper? We aim to surface these issues and ask our students to consider them. When do you blow the whistle, dig in your heels, draw the line, just say no?
A relatively new entry in business curricula, ethics courses reflect a corporate trend of hiring ethics officers and incorporating ethics into management-training programs. About half of Skidmores business majors take the ethics course; if the major didnt already have so many requirements, theyd all have to take it, according to Roy Rotheim, chair of the department of management and business. Business students tend to come in thinking that the bottom line is everything, observes Rotheim. Its our responsibility to teach them that there are right and wrong, ethics and justice, in business.
Offered every semester, the course has been taught alternately by accountant Kennelly and lawyer Christine Kopec. Its a good fit for both. Both believe that corporations have obligations not only to their stockholders but to their stakeholderstheir employees, customers, banks, suppliers, government, and environment; in short, to their communities. And because both are community activists themselvesKennelly in Little League, Boy Scouts, the Battenkill Conservancy, and Kopec in PTA, school board, YWCA, and literacyits not surprising that a volunteer component has been slowly taking shape in the course they teach.
When Kopec asked her students to study and report on volunteer organizations, she says, my students loved it. Several said theyd like to do volunteer work. This semester, Kennelly assigned his students fifteen hours volunteer work for an organization of their choice, anything from Saratogas soup kitchen to the Sierra Club. He also required them to conduct a management analysis on the organization they chose, then to pitch its needs to the class as if to a firm interested in corporate philanthropy. This is a way to take our study of business ethics outside the realm of theory and into real life, says Kennelly.
In the classroom, Kennelly and Kopec use different textbooks, separate syllabi, and different approaches. Kopec, who serves as a New York State Ethics Commission administrative-law judge and has practiced law for state agencies and private corporations, takes a more philosophical approach than Kennelly, who jokingly describes himself as a recovering accountant.
On a typical day, Kennelly pulls his chair into an informal circle with his fourteen students in a sunny Bolton Hall classroom. This days case involves a young accountant, newly hired at the auto-parts-supply company called RUN Inc., and promised a rapid rise to CFO. When his initial review of the books turns up serious problems, the accountant urges his bosses to do the right thing: restate the falsified earnings. They say they only borrowed some profits to get through the stock market downturn and promise that if he stays on, all will be made right when the market goes up again.
Imagine you are this accountant, says Kennelly. What would you do?
Id resign, says a student firmly. Hes a CPA. He knows the rules of the game.
No, he should stay, another student argues. Maybe he could do some good, get the company to be a little more legitimate.
But how much real power would he have to change what theyre doing? asks a third student.
And a fourth butts in with, Whats wrong, anyway, with borrowing profits if you know the sale is coming in?
Well, what do you do next month? somebody counters.
Whats the effect of this on the stakeholders? probes Kennelly. Who does it hurt? Stockholders? Customers? And what about the accounting profession itself, whose code of ethics is based on integrity and serving the public trust?
The vigorous discussion ends, as it often does, with students split on whats right. There are few black-and-white answers in ethics study, says Kopec. There are even fewer a week later, when the topic in Kennellys class is Enron, the Texas-based energy-trading giant that went spectacularly bankrupt last December. The students capably tot up Enrons ethical debits: employees retirement funds wiped out, dubious accounting practices, probable insider trading, shredding of financial documents, misguided market analyses, etc. What stumps them is that much of what Enron and its auditors did was technically legal. When Kennelly asks, What are the ethical lessons of Enron? the most confident answer is, Its a wakeup call.
Enron is tough because its much less straightforward than RUN, says Kennelly, who clearly enjoys the tough questions. The door of his office is decorated with a Question Authority sticker and a nineteenth-century illustration captioned Should Robber Barons Reign? Kennelly left a corporate accounting career to teach college because I always wanted to teach and to write. You can make an impact, and you can think about large issues. He is currently researching the societal and environmental repercussions of the Celtic tiger phenomenonIrelands hugely successful takeoff into the global market.
Like Enrons sudden failure, Irelands sudden success is a slippery issue that is still evolving. Ethics happen in real time, says Kennelly. We make all our decisions under pressure and often without adequate information. The best we can do is sensitize ourselves and our students to recognize ethical situations when we see them.
Actually, they can do a little bit more. This spring Kennellys students were doing good works at the YMCA, a child-care center, Saratogas Childrens Museum, and other nonprofits. Kennelly urged them to keep detailed journals, to analyze their organizations management structures, and to develop compelling cases to present to corporations looking to do well and do good. And yes, plenty of such companies exist.
Look at Ben and Jerrys, says Kopec. Look at the companies that dedicate a percentage of profits to a volunteer cause. Its really not all about the bottom line. Maybe our course wont change the world, but our students will definitely have some ideas on how to change the workplace.