Tag Archives: conflict

Ethics

May 16, 2017 by

Years ago, my colleague Butch Ethington showed me a graphic he designed when he was the ethics officer and ombudsman at Union Pacific Railroad. I still use this graphic in my Creighton classes and the department uses it in our Business Ethics Alliance programs.

It is a pyramid. At the bottom are all the rank-and-file employees, the heart and soul of business. Their No.1 ethical issue, Butch says, is fairness. “She got more time off.” “He was given the opportunity for travel.” “She got to work from home.”

In the middle of the pyramid are the managers and directors. In between the top dogs and rank and file employees, managers and directors have tough roles. Their No. 1 ethical issue is accurate reporting. “How do I make my boss happy about the numbers?” “How do I showcase my subordinates?”

At the top of the pyramid are the executives and board members of the organization. They spend a great amount of time interfacing with government, the public, and all stakeholders. Their No. 1 ethical issue is conflict of interest.

Of course, conflicts of interest can occur at any level of an organization. Think about the conflicts that arise for salespeople, or the ones that occur in procurement. Executives have other ethical issues, for example, telling the truth or community responsibilities. Let’s focus on executives and board members and their conflicts of interest.

Three key questions arise. What is a conflict of interest? Why is it so hard to recognize our own conflicts of interest? What can be implemented to reduce conflicts of interest?

As for the first question, we all know that a conflict of interest can arise when someone is responsible for serving competing interests. But this is not, in and of itself, unethical. It is what a person does about the competing interests that matter. Classic examples of conflicts of interest focus on financial interests, for example, an executive who shares confidential information, thereby decreasing his firm’s assets and increasing his own. But a more nuanced definition of conflict of interest includes multi-dimensions and is not always about making more money. For example, what about a board member who provides a building to the firm at reduced rent? In this case, she provides a benefit because of her interest. Is this a conflict that is unethical?

It has been said that half of the battle in ethics is being aware that there is an ethical situation in front of you. Why is it so hard to see one’s conflicts of interest? Behavioral ethicists shine a light on this second question. We have psychological dispositions to think or act in certain ways, due to chemistry or socialization, which are unnoticed or disbelieved. Deeply entrenched and habitual dispositions can be healthy, like being confident. But confidence can become extreme and turn into a bias. Overconfidence bias can block one’s perception of a conflict of interest and when this happens we say a person has a psychological blindspot.

Overconfidence bias can be heard when an executive says, “This is not a problem. If anyone can handle it, I can.” But no one is immune to psychological blindspots and unethical conflicts of interest. No one. The best we can do is recognize our human nature and develop strategies to overcome our extremes. Which takes us to question three.

What can we do to reduce conflicts of interest? At the policy level, it is helpful to have executives and board members sign conflict of interest statements. But make sure the documents are multidimensional, addressing possible financial, as well as non-financial, conflicts. Most conflict of interest statements do not. Second, we can learn from something Bruce Grewcock, CEO of Kiewit, once told me. He says that the company has leaders who are willing to speak up and point out to him when he needs to examine a situation again. He’s expressing the old adage, “surround yourself with good people.” When we do this, we have the best chance of recognizing our overconfidence and reducing the chance that we will act inappropriately and wreak havoc on our world.

Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., is the executive director of Business Ethics Alliance, and the Daugherty Chair in Business Ethics & Society at Creighton University.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This article was printed in the Spring 2017 edition of B2B.

 

Ethical Twists and Turns

May 10, 2017 by

It would be intriguing to map the thinking patterns of engineers, architects, and graphic artists. I expect the engineers to be linear thinkers, the graphic artists to be web-based, and the architects to be a little of both.

Of course these differences among professions are gross generalizations. But rather than focus on the differences, let’s look at the similarities, especially in the realm of ethics. I am interested in the question they all must address, namely, “How do I balance my personal values with my career goals and the goals of my firm?” Let’s see how the answer twists and turns as careers play out.

At the beginning of one’s career, a specific ethical problem is maintaining personal values while building credentials. For example, suppose that a young professional—whether an engineer, architect, or graphic designer—eats locally grown, organic foods because they feel that food from big conglomerates includes unnecessary salt, sugar, and fat. Yet, a food giant contacts them to do substantial work. Do they put their personal values aside to build their careers?

I recently asked students in my graduate class in Creighton’s Heider College of Business this question. One was extremely vocal. “I’d take the job. I have student loans that need to get paid off. I also have to get any experience I can. Later on, I can be choosy about the clients with which I work.” Another was just as vehement that, “whether it comes to a job or an investment, there are certain things I will not do and opportunities I will not take. Period.”

As the years go on, careers advance and professionals move up the ladder. A specific ethical problem at this stage is balancing personal values with significant business choices that impact the overall financial success of one’s firm as well as spouses and kids. So suppose that an engineer, architect, or graphic designer personally believes that smoking pot is bad for the individual and society. But they work for a company that will do contracts for anything that is legal. A Colorado marijuana firm contacts them to ask their company to do cannabis cultivation process thermal load calculations (engineer); a floor plan for a production facility (architect); or a website for the company (graphic designer). Do they put their personal values aside to advance the
firm’s profitability?

Some say that professionals can seek guidance about this question by looking to their associations. Professional associations have codes of ethics (like AIGA for graphic designers) that are meant to be useful for addressing the ethical dilemmas relevant in their fields. These codes are important and significant ways of setting standards and expectations of good conduct. I firmly believe in them. However, while codes cover responsibilities to clients, honesty in marketing, and the like, such ethical codes do not typically help professionals address the balance between their personal values and the values of the organizations for which
they work.

Without external guidance, some advanced professionals turn inward and think about going between the horns of the ethical dilemma rather than hanging onto one horn as opposed to the other (as those at the beginning of their careers tend to do). A seasoned professional may use their years of experience to devise a sophisticated way to honor their values while keeping their job. One inclusive solution is to volunteer for, and financially contribute to, a local not-for-profit that provides services to recovering drug addicts. This is akin to people planting trees because, while they object to oil production, they drive cars and want to offset the CO2 emissions.

We have seen that the conflicts between personal, career, and organizational values are real and inescapable. And the ethical line we draw twists and turns as circumstances change. What is the moral of the story? It’s this: As we undertake positions and advance in our fields, the best we can do is to keep our personal values front of mind, and recognize that the twists and turns we take are a natural part of life’s exploration and ethical growth.

Beverly Kracher, Ph.D., is the executive director of the Business Ethics Alliance and the Daugherty Chair in Business Ethics and Society at Creighton University.

This column was printed in the Summer 2017 edition of B2B.

Sibling Harmony

May 25, 2013 by
Photography by Bev Carlson

I had an interesting conversation recently with a friend, a father of three. He was talking about his two oldest children, both incredibly talented musicians. The son can play just about any instrument. The daughter has a voice like an angel.

“It’s just such a shame they refuse to perform together,” he said. When I asked why, he shrugged and said, “They just can’t stop fighting.”

His response surprised me. My guess? These kids will grow out of it. This was a family that exuded harmony on almost every level. Very engaged, involved parents. Bright, accomplished children. But siblings that, for now, could barely get along. Ever.

I understand sibling conflict. I really do. I have a younger brother, emphasis on “younger” because “little” stopped working when he hit six feet or so. Now, at 6’5”, he’s an officer in the U.S. Navy who carries a wide command and a powerful presence.

Well, I clearly recall back to the days when I could push him around at will. Of course, I was the ONLY one who could do so. If anyone else even looked at him like they were going to tease him or bully him, they had to get through me first—and that simply wasn’t happening. We were four years apart, and even though he could irritate me just by walking into my bedroom, he was still my little brother, and that meant I had his back.

I still do.

“Relationships that never really gelled in childhood only grow more distant with time…I hear friends talk about it a lot, and it makes me sad. I don’t want that for my children.”

It’s not that way for a lot of siblings—adult or otherwise. Relationships that never really gelled in childhood only grow more distant with time. Brothers and sisters who experience mutual trauma walk away from the conflict and each other. Siblings with oil-and-water personalities determine that it’s not worth the effort to find a balance, especially once the parental connection is gone. I hear friends talk about it a lot, and it makes me sad. I don’t want that for my children.

I really don’t know any of the secrets of creating sibling harmony, but I do claim a couple of kids who, for the most part, get along and enjoy each other. I love to hear their conversations about books or teachers or issues. Video games and YouTube videos are other common topics. They brag about each other when they think I’m not listening. They have their moments when they genuinely annoy one another, but I rarely have to intervene.

Maybe it’s helped that they’ve heard since day one that they are expected to look out for each other. “You guys run in nearly the same circles,” they’ve heard from me. “You have a better idea of whether the kids you’re hanging out with are nice or not.” They attend each other’s events and performances. They partner up on amusement rides. They are generally encouraged to help each other when they can. “Because,” as they hear from me, “you are lifetime friends.”

I may have just gotten lucky with the personality mix of my two, but I also took some advice that I got when they were very small. Now that they are young teenagers, I believe it might be paying off.

Here are some expert suggestions from Scholastic.com:

  • Avoid comparisons. Nothing causes more short- and long-term damage to the sibling dynamic than comparing academic or extracurricular achievements. Give honest, specific feedback and support each of your children toward their individual strengths and the skills each needs to strive for. Don’t ever stack them against each other.
  • Intervene when they argue, but be selective. There’s a big difference between fighting and problem solving. Rather than letting them always duke it out, teach them cooperation and conflict-resolution skills, like taking turns.
  • Introduce meaningful apologies. Rather than forcing an angry child to say he’s sorry, which will only produce an insincere apology, let him cool down first. Then talk to him about how to make amends for hurting another person’s feelings.

As it usually is, starting early and being consistent is key. And children also benefit when they see their parents model warm and loving relationships with their own siblings. But for the most part, some discontent with a brother or sister is simply part of growing up and provides a training ground for finding your voice.

Oh, and one last thing. Tell all of your children how much you love them. All the time. A child who feels well-loved has fewer reasons to lash out at their siblings.