Tough business: Students face dilemmas during Business Ethics Week

In the cutthroat world of business, sometimes it's hard to do the right thing. Indeed, given the global financial crisis of a few years ago, there are plenty of examples of people and companies doing the wrong thing.

SF State's College of Business building

SF State's College of Business hosts an annual week of events dedicated to the exploration of ethical issues.

Business Ethics Week, an annual SF State event in its ninth year, confronts this issue, putting a spotlight on corporate responsibility and examining how leaders come to difficult decisions. From Nov. 3 to 7, students, faculty and the public will hear firsthand from businesspeople in a variety of sectors and engage in discussions. Through these activities, participants will consider how ethical dilemmas can complicate the quest for success and develop strategies for acting according to principles.This year, guest speakers will include the president and CEO of New Resource Bank and the controller of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Below, Associate Professor of Management Denise Kleinrichert, who has organized Business Ethics week at SF State since its second year, discusses the significance of ethics as part of a business education.


Associate Professor of Management Denise Kleinrichert

Associate Professor of Management Denise Kleinrichert

Why is it important to teach ethics to business students?

It's extremely important because business is all about human relations. The study of ethics is basically about the connections between people and how we treat one another, making sure that we don't harm others. We apply that to business decisions and ensuring that those decisions are thought through critically to anticipate how they will impact employees, consumers, the environment. That's the bottom line: to encourage people to take responsibility for their decisions and actions.


So Business Ethics Week was established as a way to focus on those issues?

Exactly. We talk about ethics for the entire year, but when you do something day in and day out, sometimes people start to lose focus. Business Ethics Week is a great reminder to take stock of where we have been and where we are going and to hear some fresh voices so we can re-evaluate our own perspectives. Every one of our guest speakers, who are typically at the executive level, will say that the hardest thing they do is making decisions they know will impact others. That's what keeps them awake at night.


How do you teach ethics?

You teach ethics by throwing problems on the table and asking, "What are you going to do with this?" It's like a jigsaw puzzle. How do you solve it so all the pieces fit the right way and form a whole picture, with none of the pieces torn or thrown to the side? We teach ethics mostly through case studies and a lot of dialogue, and you don't always have everyone in agreement about the optimal ethical outcome. Case studies also force people to put themselves in someone else's shoes: How would you feel if someone did that to you? We develop our students' confidence in making decisions and give them tools to make a decision that won't cause harm.


What is new about this year's program?

We're doing film screenings for the first time, and I think that will be a lot fun. Also, we do the Ethics Game, which is kind of like a game show but dealing with serious issues. We have two or three teams that read a case study and give a statement on their positions, then the judges and audience follow up with questions. This year, we're adding a faculty team for the first time, and I think it will be exciting to have them compete with students. We also have a health care/pharmaceutical workshop for people who want to understand issues of ethics and compliance in that field, and one on hospitality and tourism, talking about things that can go right and wrong in hospitality situations.


What kind of feedback do you get from students about Ethics Week?

The students love it because they have people already in the working world who they can talk to in a small group, or even one on one. Students are especially interested in people who talk about social entrepreneurship, whose primary goal is to do good, but who also need to be profitable enough to remain in business. They learn firsthand that there are ways to meet the needs of customers, the environment and employees and still be profitable.

Students also look forward to Business Ethics Week because it allows them a voice and a chance to interact. Ethics is not a concept that you can memorize, or use an equation to solve a problem. These questions are tough and the students have to wrestle with them, but they get satisfaction from wrestling with the ideas and being able to come to some sort of positive outcome.


Business Ethics Week events will be held at SF State's main campus and at the Downtown Campus from Nov. 3 to 7. Most events are open to the public and do not require advance registration.

-- Beth Tagawa