Work it Wednesday: Business Ethics front and Center at the University of St. Thomas

8:12 AM, Jun 30, 2010   |    comments
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University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Kenneth Goodpaster, Ph.D. has degrees in mathematics and philosophy.  He holds the David and Barbara Koch endowed chair in Business Ethics at the University of St. Thomas Opus College of Business.

With a research background in corporate responsibility and business ethics, Goodpaster has more than a passing interest in the recent spate of high profile business scandals that have been in the headlines in recent years.

Still, he has reason to believe there's a difference between perception and reality.

"The Ethics Resource Center in Washington, D.C. publishes an annual survey that talks about misconduct as perceived by employees in the corporate workplace, and the figures are actually lower in 2009 than they were in 2005," says Goodpaster.

He says research finds perceived misconduct goes down, not up in times of economic hardship.  In good times, misconduct goes up, "which might be counter-intuitive," says Goodpaster, "it seems to be borne out by the numbers."

St. Thomas boasts a program of business ethics within it's Opus College of Business that may be unparalleled in the nation.

"Business ethics is required in every single program that we teach," says Goodpaster.  "It's a core element of every program, which is partly why we have such a large faculty in business ethics."

That program includes an "ethics lab" where students go inside some of the biggest coporations in Minnesota to learn directly from professionals there how they handle situations that test business ethics.

"They usually come out of a four hours session at one of those companies scratching their heads and saying, 'wow, these people, they have to deal with some tough issues, and they seem to do it well.'"

It's the ones that don't go well that grab headlines, though.

Goodpaster says the situation might not be as bad as you might think.

"A lot of what we're seeing today, we have seen before, but it manifested itself differently," says Goodpaster.

"A lot of the context of business has changed from the early 1800's to the present but questions about what happens when a question gets too powerful and starts wagging the rest of society, what happens when a coporation starts abusing its employees... what happens when a coporation lies to consumers," says Goodpaster.

"All of these questions were explored in the 19th century as much as the 20th, but they show up in a different way."

"To say there's nothing new under the sun would be a mistake," says Goodpaster, "But to say we've never seen anything like this before would also be a mistake."

Right now, Goodpaster is part of a three year project to research centuries of corporate responsibility globally as well as in the United States. 

The Center for Ethical Business Cultures at the University of St. Thomas envisions two published volumes for business leaders interested in societal issues as a core responsibility of corporations as well as business scholars.

For more information on the History of Corporate Responsibility Project, click here.


Center for Ethical Business Cultures


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