University of Southern California

Steve Byars
The Business of Ethics
Meet me on LinkedIn
Meet me on Facebook

One of the most attractive features of teaching in the Marshall School of Business, by my lights, is the opportunity that all faculty members have to focus on business and professional ethics in their curriculum. Popular opinion sometimes has it that linking the words "business" and "ethics" is impractical. This has been neither my experience nor that of my students. They and I believe that it is possible to practice business and the professions with integrity. To treat all of one’s stakeholders—be they customers, clients, employees, the community, or anyone else associated with one’s business—in ethical fashion is eminently doable. Not only that, but it also redounds to the credit of the ethical practitioner. Finally, it provides a businessperson with a sense of personal satisfaction that may otherwise be elusive.

I can also offer that ethical business practices actually constitute good business. This is an instrumental approach, but the truth remains that to treat stakeholders with honesty and fairness is to increase one’s chances for success. That's because the businessperson who has a reputation for ethical practice is far more likely to attract clients and customers. For proof of this, we need look no farther than ourselves. With whom would we rather partner in business—the person of his or her word or the one who plays fast and loose with the truth? Put another way, would we choose to do business with someone who cheats others? Would we not then fear that he or she would treat us in precisely the same way?

So in a cynical age in which some insist that ethics has a place only outside of one’s professional life, we experience a different climate here in Marshall. We choose to be known as a business school that trains future leaders in the philosophy that the ends never justify the means. Rather, it’s the other way around in that the means ennoble the ends. Without honorable means, in other words, the ends become bankrupt.

Ethical business practices, of course, are conditioned by the time, place, and culture in which we live. This is reflected here in Marshall by the many international students that are present. Still, this variety of backgrounds actually gives us a laboratory of global perspectives within which to engage questions of business ethics. There's no guarantee that an entrepreneur in Denver will understand business ethics in the same sense that one in Abu Dhabi will. Similarly, business ethics has a somewhat different meaning now in the twenty-first century than it had in 1950. And at the same time, religion and family moral traditions also influence the way in which we approach business.

Admittedly, it's complex stuff, but some objective standards still emerge irrespective of geography, chronology, or varying social standards. To treat others with courtesy and respect is a value that transcends all of these human differences. Dishonest and rapacious business practices are going to be framed as outside the norm in all societies. That is not to say that they won’t occur, whether the site is Shanghai or San Francisco. Yet in neither city will they be embraced as normative.

All of this suggests the environment that I try to establish in class. I want to engage my students in a dialogue in which we explore the costs and values of the ways in which they intend to manage their businesses. Will they choose to engage in practices that may yield short-term advantages but long-term penalties? Will they obey the law in their business environment only to the extent that they stay out of jail, or will they go beyond the law in order to fashion a reputation that serves them well over the length of their careers?

I have found students—and my faculty colleagues, as well—to be greatly interested in these issues. Rather than paying lip service to business ethics simply because they think it is expected of them, they appreciate that each of us makes choices about the way in which we’ll engage with our profession and the perceptions that we wish others to have of us. Most of my students understand that material, psychological, and emotional rewards are at stake in the manner in which they choose to practice business, and they are eager to consider what each of these means to them.

We make no claim to come to definitive answers about these matters. That requires more than a semester or even the length of a degree program. After all, we speak about the practice of business because it genuinely is a lifelong endeavor. No foundational question about the way in which one will live one’s life—and these sorts of questions about career practices truly are foundational—permits a quick and clean answer arrived at in a morning’s work. Still, I believe that simply to raise the questions is an essential beginning. Our students will have many occasions to consider these points further, and they’re entitled to some false starts, too. As I tell them, if we’ve come to some incorrect decisions about the best ways ethically to practice business, we’ll simply have to gather again in a half-century or so back in Hoffman or Popovich Halls and reconsider them!