Foster Is a World Leader in Business Ethics Research and Development
Think you can master business ethics simply by studying the greatest hits of corporate scandal—Enron, Madoff, Lehman Brothers—and then doing the opposite? Think merely adopting a motto like “don’t be evil” makes it so? Think common sense and a moral compass are sufficient aids to navigation?
“There are a lot of misconceptions regarding ethics,” says Elizabeth Umphress, an associate professor of management who teaches and studies ethics at the University of Washington Foster School of Business. “Common sense doesn’t always guide us well.”
The Foster School equips students with a far more dependable guide. A deep, dedicated study is required in the core curriculum of every degree program, led by an ethics faculty that ranks among the most influential in the world.
Not because it has to. Not in reaction to scandal. And not for positive PR. The Foster School stresses ethics because it’s too often oversimplified, misunderstood and discounted. And because it’s essential.
“I feel very fortunate to have had a solid grounding in ethics from a school that takes it very seriously,” says alumnus Jonathan Hill (MBA 2010), operations manager for global project finance at the international development firm DAI. “It’s extremely empowering.”
Hill oversees the accounting of international aid contracts at work in 80 different countries. Negotiating ethical solutions amid multiple cultures is a daily requirement of the job. But he says he’s been well trained at Foster to handle anything the world throws at him.
Dan Turner, associate dean for masters programs and executive education at Foster, believes emphasizing ethics so vigorously is both the right and the responsible thing to do.
“To reach your potential as an individual and a leader in an organizational setting, you must be a person of character,” he insists. “We have an opportunity and a responsibility to help develop that character in our students at every level of their careers.”
The Foster approach to ethics stresses knowledge over intuition, findings over feelings. The ethics course addresses the individual decisions we make, cultures we build and organizational strategy we set.
In the end, students are equipped not only to make more ethical individual decisions but also to lead more effective, ethical teams and organizations.
“Each ethical situation is different, and each requires a different set of skills. By understanding what those skills are, developing them and testing them, we expand our capacity to deal with some of the most challenging issues that arise at work,” says Scott Reynolds, an associate professor of business ethics. “It may not be obvious at first, but what we are doing at the Foster School is conferring on our graduates an intrinsic competitive advantage.”
Competitive advantage of ethics
Accomplishing this requires a commitment to ethics that comes from the top. This manifests in two significant assets.
First is the assemblage of a powerhouse ethics faculty—ranked sixth in the world in a recent definitive study—that provides the most complete expertise available on the subject. “You get a different outcome,” Turner says, “when you have people who live, breathe and contribute to the ethics literature teaching ethical theory in the classroom.”
Second is the central role that ethics plays at the Foster School. “We’ve never taught it as an afterthought or a reaction to external pressure,” Turner adds. “Ethics is fundamental to our curriculum. It’s ingrained in our DNA.”
Ethics part of Foster DNA
If ethics is part of the Foster DNA, then Tom Jones was present at the creation. The professor of management joined the faculty in 1978 when business ethics became a formal branch of social science. Jones inherited the school’s first ethics course, “Business, Government and Society,” and soon chaired the department of the same name.
While the department was later folded into Management & Organization, Jones continued teaching ethics and corporate social responsibility. He also authored seminal work on individual decision making within an organization. In the mid-1990s, he turned his attention toward macroethics, or ethics applied at the corporate strategy level. In the years since, he has been developing “stakeholder” theory, an alternative approach to business that argues corporations would better serve the societal good if their mission was to maximize the well-being of all stakeholders rather than shareholders alone.
Ethics curriculum and research expands
Jones passed the lead teaching torch to Reynolds when he arrived in 2002. “After Enron, when business schools were scrambling to add ethics to their students’ portfolios,” he says, “we were expanding.”
Reynolds’ research has revealed some fascinating truths about the non-conscious elements of ethical awareness. One paper demonstrated the relationship between moral intuition and moral behavior, and outlined circumstances under which an organization’s culture can “activate” immoral behavior. In another he developed an assessment of “moral attentiveness” that can predict behavior over time.
Umphress joined the Foster faculty in 2011, bringing a line of research that tends toward the “dark side” of ethical decision making. She has studied why people do bad things for the good of their organization. And she’s currently working to understand why people morally disengage—a major theme of her coursework. “If I can get my students to believe that we all are capable of unethical acts when not morally engaged,” Umphress says, “I know that they will be more ethical.”
Bruce Avolio, a professor of management and executive director of the Foster Center for Leadership, has long worked to accelerate positive, authentic leadership development. Most recently he’s outlined the capacities that leaders require to think and act morally.
Morela Hernandez, an assistant professor of management, investigates how leadership emerges and how moral decision making can be developed.
Ryan Fehr, fresh out of his doctoral program, explores the intersection of ethics, morality and conflict management, with an emphasis on apology and forgiveness.
“The Foster School has put together a unique group of business ethics scholars, including several who are considered leaders in the field,” says Linda Trevino, a giant in organizational ethics research who directs the Shoemaker Program in Business Ethics at Penn State. “I can’t think of another department in the country that has this much bench strength in the area.”
Business ethics litmus test
“There’s no question that the students I’ve met and worked with have a strong sense of ethics,” says Howard Behar, former president of Starbucks who has spent a good deal of his retirement as a mentor and lecturer to Foster students. “It comes from the top and gets driven throughout the entire school.”
Foster’s culture demands that even skeptical students like MBA Jesse Robbins emerge with a new perspective. “I never gave much thought to ethics before the MBA Program,” admits Robbins. “But I gained not only awareness but invaluable frameworks, ways of approaching a problem... that allows me to communicate... even with people who aren’t on the same page.”
That ability led Robbins and a team of fellow Foster MBAs to take third place at a 2011 national MBA Case Competition in Business Ethics, coolly proposing an auditing plan to deliver Rupert Murdoch’s embattled News Corp from scandal to ethical leadership.
“When someone is associated with the Foster School, you know that not only are they going to be well-educated in the tools of business,” adds Reynolds, “but also they’re going to have integrity and a long-term perspective.”