"It is not just my job to educate a manager; it is also my job to educate a citizen, an investor, a consumer, a parent – to educate somebody who is going to occupy all of those roles and may see all of them as opportunities for making a change in the way we do business with each other."

Aristotle, Kant, Thoreau - they all have something to say about the ethical conduct of business. Why then, with thousands of years of guidance and reflection, are tragic breaches of conduct at major corporations still so common?

Because, in part, the decisions that business managers face are not simple. "It is easy to sit in the ivory tower and say, 'This is what Kant would have said,' or, 'This is what Aristotle would have said,' about the proper way to manage a supply chain," says Associate Professor of Management Michael Johnson-Cramer. "Most of the answers you get in that regard - when ethicists turn to managers and say, 'Why haven't you been doing this all along? We've known the right thing to do for 2,000 years, why haven't you been doing this?' - are simplistic. I've had enough experience to look at these theoretical questions and say there are forces and factors working in the other direction. There are complexities."

In his research, Johnson-Cramer has noted that companies tend to cycle through ethical phases. For example, in Wal-Mart's early days, it was lauded for offering benefits to part-time workers and embracing employee empowerment. A decade later, the company's reputation had changed and it was no longer seen as a model of corporate responsibility. Today, Wal-Mart is again taking a leadership role, this time with its environmental policies. Johnson-Cramer and Shawn Berman of the University of New Mexico have identified four phases of responsibility and irresponsibility that companies tend to oscillate between, and are now teasing apart what drives the change.

"We've been trying to figure out, is this a predictable cycle over the long term?" he says. "Is there something about the way companies are managed, the way they are engaged with their stakeholders, that almost puts them on this predictable course where they go from one approach to another almost in a predictable cycle of responsibility and irresponsibility?"

Johnson-Cramer's goal in teaching business ethics is not so much to teach right from wrong, but to inspire students to manage deliberately - to consider their broader place in the world as they weigh the many competing pressures on a manager. He sees his students as participants in an age-old discussion of how we can and should live together as a moral community.

"That is what is really neat about Bucknell," he says. "It is not just my job to educate a manager; it is also my job to educate a citizen, an investor, a consumer, a parent - to educate somebody who is going to occupy all of those roles and may see all of them as opportunities for making a change in the way we do business with each other."

Posted Sept. 20, 2010

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