Business Ethics

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Business Ethics:
A VIEW FROM THE TRENCHES

Joseph L. Badaracco, Jr. Allen P. Webb

esearch and writing in the field of business ethics typically takes the viewpoint of a senior executive or, on occasion, a middle manager. But aside from several questionnaire-based studies, there are no indepth examinations of how young managers' define ethical issues, think about them, and resolve them. This article aims to remedy this skewed perspective. In essence, it sketches a picture of business ethics as viewed not from the generals' headquarters, but from the trenches.^ The conventional wisdom and practice of management business ethics is now familiar. Well-intentioned business executives rely on some mix of corporate credos, statements of their own convictions, ethics hotlines, ombudsmen, and training programs to set the ethical standards for their organizations. Scholars study deviance, corporate crime, and the effectiveness of efforts to shape a company's ethical climate. In business ethics classrooms, students learn the basic principles of utilitarianism and deontology and practice applying them to contemporary management dilemmas such as affirmative action, pollution, layoffs, and take-over battles. The view from the trenches is very different, and it offers little comfort for senior executives who are trying to implement corporate ethics programs, for academics developing philosophy-based approaches to business ethics, or for those who hope that communitarian values will soon take root in corporate soil. This article, which is based principally upon in-depth interviews with thirty recent graduates of the Harvard MBA Program, reveals several disturbing patterns. First, in many cases, young managers received explicit instructions from their middle-manager bosses or felt strong organizational pressures to do things that they believed were sleazy, unethical, or sometimes illegal. Second,

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CALIFORNIA MANAGEMENT REVIEW

VOL 37, NO, 2

WINTER 1995

Business Ethics: A V i e w From the Trenches

corporate ethics programs, codes of conduct, mission statements, hot lines, and the like provided little help. Third, many of the young managers believed that their company's executives were out-of-touch on ethical issues, either because they were too busy or because they sought to avoid responsibility. Fourth, the young managers resolved the dilemmas they faced largely on the basis of personal reflection and individual values, not through reliance on corporate credos, company loyalty, the exhortations of senior executives, philosophical principles, or religious reflection. Ironically, however, while many of the interviewees described their experiences as difficult or even traumatic, many believed they learned important lessons about themselves and the world of work. In particular, they came to see themselves even more clearly as self-reliant, mobile, autonomous moral agents in an intensely competitive, sometimes unethical business world. The thirty young managers interviewed for this study had all taken an elective course on business ethics and had written papers about ethical dilemmas they had faced in their first jobs. These young men and women-and, most importantly, the disheartening answers they gave to our questions—seemed typical of young management candidates. Two-thirds of the interviewees were men and one-third women; four of the thirty were African Americans. Half of the students, at the time of the incident they described, were working for commercial or investment banks, or consulting, accounting, or advertising firms. The young managers' views of organizations, senior executives, and the pressures of management life confirm what several large-sample, questionnaire studies of young managers have found.' What the in-depth interviews add, however, is an understanding of what lies behind the questionnaire results.

"Just Do It"
The young managers described a variety of situations. For example, a management...
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