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Business ethics on a global stage
Ryan White ’14 (left), a computer science and business major, talks with Joseph Manzo (center), professor of practice in the accounting department, and Thomas Donaldson.
Imagine you’re sharing a drink with your friend, who is officially on duty as the safety inspector of the company you both work for. An accident occurs and an investigation is launched by a national safety commission. Since you were present at the time of the accident, you’re asked to give testimony. Does your friend have any right to ask you to protect him?

This was one of many ethical quandaries posed to students by Thomas Donaldson, the Mark O. Winkelman Professor of Legal Studies and Business Ethics at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and director of the Zicklin Center for Research in Business Ethics. Donaldson spoke to students this spring as part of the campus-wide Speakers Series on Ethical Decision-Making.

It turns out your answer to Donaldson’s hypothetical dilemma may depend on where you live: in northern Europe, for example, 90 percent of people surveyed said their friend had no right to ask them to protect him. In southern Europe, by comparison, that number is closer to 50 percent.  

“It all depends on how you define your ethics,” Donaldson said. “If ethics doesn’t have something to do with honor and friendship, what does it have to do with?”

Ethical decision-making away from home

Our increasingly interconnected world can make ethical decision-making challenging, Donaldson said.

“When we get on an airplane and leave the territorial boundaries of the United States, we leave behind certain touchstones we use to measure ethics,” Donaldson said. “When we find ourselves in other countries confronting challenges related to business and economics, it’s easy to get confused.”

In addition to confronting a completely different set of laws, travelers must also face a completely different set of norms.

“Translating ethics from one country to another is as different as translating from one language to another,” Donaldson said.

Donaldson used the example of Google, which after launching in China was asked to self-censor its search results within the country. If the company refused, it was likely to lose a great deal of market share. If it acquiesced, it would violate its own corporate ethical standards. Ultimately, Google decided against self-censorship and lost major market share to competitor Baidu. But the question remains: Did Google do the right thing?

“Thinking hard about these issues makes sense,” Donaldson said. “Ethics isn’t just about what you feel and what I feel. In this case, it’s a case of home country versus host country.”

Joseph Manzo, professor of practice in the accounting department, stressed the importance of teaching business ethics at the undergraduate and graduate level.

“The best way to successfully deal with an ethical dilemma is to know what’s possible,” Manzo said. “If students are not aware of the ethical dilemmas they could potentially face in the business world, they run the risk of getting trapped in decisions that are unethical.”

The Speakers Series on Ethical Decision-Making is made possible by the Endowed Fund for the Teaching of Ethical Decision-Making, which was established in 2009. Two other speakers gave presentations on campus this spring as part of the series. They were Paul Root Wolpe, director of the Center for Ethics at Emory University, and Anita L. Allen, a member of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues.



Donaldson's talk was the third in the series