I was asked to address the following questions:
- Do you believe that lenient sentencing plays a role in creating the current ethical climate in American business? Please explain why or why not?
- What other ways can unethical behavior be prevented besides the threat of prosecution and jail time?
- What role should the topic of ethics play in the business curriculum? That is, should it be a required course? Does it provide a value-added to your course of study? Please justify your position.
- Would your parents say that your generation is more or less ethical than their generation? Please explain your answer.
Although lenient sentencing certainly has played some role in creating the current ethical climate in American business, its impact is most likely over-estimated. After all sentencing includes losing the ill-gotten gains regardless of any jail time involved. The more likely culprit, especially during the last decade of the twentieth century, is government prosecutors inability to convict a large percentage of offenders. Although the NPR segment pointed out that 76% of those brought to trial between 1992 and 2001 were convicted, but the number of defendants (187) seems low for the time period. Additionally, Steiner and Steiner point out that a study conducted in 2006 found that only 43% of the cases studied resulted in a conviction (p. 211). It is far more likely that successful business executives, especially those willing to skirt or completely ignore ethical hazards, would be believe they would never get caught. Unfortunately, the evidence seems to agree with them.
If sentencing and convictions are ineffective at preventing unethical behavior, there needs to be an increased focus on making unethical behavior more difficult and less profitable. In the case of Martha Stewart, we found that some percentage of unethical behavior was possible because Peter Bacanovic was about to take advantage of Douglas Faneuil’s fear and naiveté, (Steiner & Steiner, pp. 229-237). Preventing executives from taking advantage of underlings requires improved ethics education and protection for whistleblowers. Both of these have recently received boosts in the wake of Enron, Arthur Andersen, and other scandals. But as long as unethical behavior is profitable, there will always be those willing to take advantage of it. Levying of corporate fines for unethical behavior is one way unethical behavior is made less profitable. Although this may have had success at the corporate level, fining individuals has not had the same effect.
The topic of ethics is extremely important and should be a part of every curriculum. “Doing the right thing” is something that most of us assume will just happen naturally. Until we are faced with that difficult situation, none of us knows for sure how we are going to react. With a basis in ethics, we can at least be confident that we will have a foundation to fall back on when a tough decision is necessary. Some decisions are not always black and white. In those cases of grey, having a framework on which to base one’s actions is a good starting point.
My parents are Baby Boomers. When they were young, President Kennedy was assassinated, the United States engaged in conflict in Vietnam, and President Nixon resigned. I do not believe my parents would find Generation X to be any more or less unethical than previous generations. Although there have recently been highly public scandals relating to financial fraud in business or the use of performance enhancing drugs in sports, my parents would believe that the behavior is not new, only the level of publicity. As mentioned in the NPR segment, unethical behavior has been around for a long time, but previously only impacted the “big boys.”
Steiner, G. & Steiner, J. (2012). Business, Government, and Society: A Managerial Perspective (13th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill/Irwin.