By Mary Grace Richardson, Editor-in-Chief
Bad behavior from companies, politicians and celebrities fill the front page of our news. For those who haven’t completely disengaged from hearing or reading the most recent events, we’re bracing ourselves for which industry giant or hero will disappoint us with one wrongdoing or another today.
Some current T-birds came to political consciousness during the signifying events of the Monica Lewinsky scandal or the misdirected push for the Iraq War. We gained our economic awareness during the fall of Enron and the housing bubble in 2008. During our times as business students, we’ve witnessed Wells Fargo’s fake accounts, Uber’s questionable work practices, and a domino effect of sexual harassment charges at Fox News.
However, all of this has culminated to a turning point in what emerging professionals expect from leaders today. Business students now recognize they can’t just demand better behavior and sound judgment from the businesses they patron. As future leaders, students must also seek these within themselves, a point that is greatly recognized by the Thunderbird Honor Council.
One of the pillar organizations on campus, the Honor Council supports ethical business behavior worldwide by starting and fueling the discussion here on the Thunderbird campus. The 18 members of the club are led by club chair Temitope Adepoju (MAGAM ’18) and co-chair Emily Saxe (MAGAM ’19).
For Adepoju, what the Honor Council does is simple and straightforward, but increasingly necessary: “We’re a group of students that try to show exemplary leadership and character. People come from different backgrounds to this country, and they have different mentalities. What we do as the Honor Council is try to help people balance between what they’re used to in their home country and what will be appropriate globally. Wherever they go from here, how are they going to deal with cultural changes and business dilemmas? When they say no, when they speak up for what is ethical, how do they do that with their business partners or bosses abroad? How do they hold onto their beliefs and morals, even in the face of heavy opposition? We try to lead by example, uphold the values of Thunderbird, and demonstrate ethical leadership and moral responsibility to students, faculty and anyone part of the community.”
While the club has historically been known as a watchdog organization on campus, Adepoju’s approach for the Honor Council has been to focus more on prevention than discipline. If there’s education and discussion in place for ethical matters, people can avoid moral missteps at Thunderbird and after. This can prepare students to face future business decisions that conflict with what is right, to navigate between what is accepted and what is ethical, and to make choices that will affect many after them.
“Even though we’re all here from other parts of the world, at Thunderbird we’ve developed a global mentality, one that goes beyond just where we’ve come from,” Adepoju explained. “We must be willing to do what is right at all times, even—rather—especially in a difficult situation. That’s what we stand for.”
The debates around increasing transparency and modern day ethical faltering spurred the Honor Council to host a series of round tables this semester. The first, Ethical Leadership in a Global Economy, will be hosted by Thunderbird professor Dr. Suzanne Peterson. Bestowed with the W.P. Carey MBA Outstanding Teacher Award, Dr. Peterson’s expertise lies in advising on authentic leadership to achieve organizational goals as she sees a greater need for leaders to reconcile external ethical expectations with their own personal behavior.
On why Honor Council wanted to host this event, Saxe said, “Students here can meaningfully influence the world by making the right decisions and knowing just how best to do that. That’s why we do what we do. We hope that by bringing people together and talking about these things, it’ll make them think about how their decisions will have an impact on not just a company but clients, consumers and the greater community.”
When it comes down to it, people are paying attention. The ubiquity of technology has made it so that what a company does in private can be broadcasted to the world, and it’s becoming more and more important for people to associate with a company that still does the right thing behind closed doors. With consumers more sophisticated and fickle than they’ve ever been, they don’t just care about the product at the end of the day; they care about the environment, social development, gender equality, human rights. Companies are waking up to that and have started embedding their ethics into their corporate structure and branding. The more adept business students have the progressive, reformist mindset to help a company achieve those goals for positive change. People who understand the importance of ethics, as well as the bottom line, will be a meaningful asset to their company.
Dr. Peterson noted though that the rationale for the focus on business ethics in school has evolved even beyond recent events: “Originally, the focus was reactionary in light of the myriad of scandals and unethical practices committed by executives and companies. However, a tougher regulatory environment in the U.S. has helped this. Today, it’s more of a diversity issue. Since virtually all business is global, today’s leaders are struggling to operate in a world where ethical or unethical behavior is defined very differently depending on where you are living, working or doing business.”
As Dr. Peterson also explained, legal issues are easy. There is a right or wrong answer in each country for these. Ethical issues are relative. And just as for any global issue, T-birds have the opportunity to lead the way on this.
“The globally-focused student body should help increase awareness, understanding and acceptance of various ethical practices around the world,” Dr. Peterson said. “All of us will notice differences in ethical behavior from country to country. Students will be faced with tough decisions as a result… T-birds could help pave the way for a discussion on how likely and broad a universal code of business ethics should be across the globe. We all must listen and find commonality without judgment since ethics is a function of culture, mores, norms, religion and upbringing. Changing engrained views and perspectives is a unique challenge: who ultimately decides who is right or wrong? The bottom line is that we need to search for similarities while still appreciating differences to find interesting overlap.”
The essence of the round table is not just to be told what is right and wrong but to learn from each other’s experience. The nuances of an ethical situation can’t be taught in a single lesson or book; rather, the instinct to navigate a difficult situation is developed through exposure and previous contemplation of integrity, principles, and tenets. During the round table and after, Dr. Peterson wants us to consider: which ethical behaviors (if any) are universal and which are relative? The conversations in classrooms and forums such as these, she says, is how we can understand and appreciate ethical differences between peers while still maintaining our own, and in turn, our company’s standards. At the heart of this issue is a respect for diversity of thought and opinion on a complex, multifaceted subject.
The Honor Council would like to thank the members and leaders of the Thunderbird Rotary Club, Net Impact, Campus Ambassadors and Das Tor for their involvement in this event and their collaborations going forward.
The Honor Council Round Table: Ethical Leadership in a Global Economy will be Monday, Feb. 12 in Yount 100 from 1:30-2:30pm. Please RSVP to the event here. If you are also interested in being an Honor Council member, you can submit an application to be considered by the club.