Werhane Helps Gies Students Tackle Tough Ethical Issues

Professor Patricia Werhane likes to start her iMBA class on business ethics with sticky questions like this one: “Should you bribe when it’s standard practice in a country, but your company has a policy against it?”

What starts off as an easy “no” turns into a wide-ranging discussion about how to do business in places where the rules of engagement vary. In countries where it appears one has to bribe in order to do business, it is difficult for students to agree that bribery is a universal “no.”

Werhane says teaching in this interactive, global classroom creates a healthy dynamic for students who wouldn’t ordinarily cross paths. She adds it becomes a safe place for a shy student to speak up.

“It’s important to have these conversations for the first time as peers in school, not when someone’s your manager. Business students need to understand how to operate globally, or they won’t have jobs,” said Werhane, an adjunct teaching professor of business administration at University of Illinois’ Gies College of Business. “It gives students from other cultures who weren’t allowed to speak up in class practice voicing their opinions. I can reach a student who would be too shy to come to offline office hours in a traditional setting.”

Werhane, who has taught online classes at other universities, says the instructional experience at Gies is very different. She appreciates the infrastructure and staff who help to make her interaction with students seamless and glitch-free. She says this makes it easy for her to use the live session to encourage a dialogue instead of delivering a lecture.

“The staff is always there to help,” Werhane said. “They point out relevant questions from the chat room and set up breakout sessions. This iMBA creates an environment where students can virtually meet fellow classmates from all over the world. They all bring different backgrounds and experiences to the discussion.”

Werhane earned her bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Wellesley College, her master’s and PhD in philosophy from Northwestern University, and spent her early teaching career in Switzerland and Germany. Her foray into teaching business ethics came when she joined Loyola University in the 1970s as a philosophy instructor and inherited a required course.

“It was full of Supreme Court cases and reading academic papers written by people like me. Students hated it,” said Werhane. She and her teaching partner reconstructed the class with a case-based curriculum of ethical theory, which they later turned into one of the first academic books on the subject. Ethical Issues in Business: A Philosophical Approach, originally co-edited with professor Thomas Donaldson, is now in its eighth edition.

“It put us on the map. It hit the market right after Watergate,” she said.

Since then, Werhane’s interest in business ethics has earned her an Emmy Award as the executive producer of Big Questions, a public television series. She is also the past president and founder of the Society for Business Ethics and has written or edited more than 30 books. Werhane served as a Rockefeller Fellow at Dartmouth College and was a visiting scholar at Cambridge University and the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. She was co-director of the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business ethics center and spent 10+ years teaching there. Most recently, Werhane was the Wicklander Chair in Business Ethics at DePaul University. She remains professor emerita at DePaul and Virginia.

Werhane says that while the black-and-white issues of business ethics have remained largely the same, the gray has changed shades. She points to the business community’s movement toward social responsibility, not just with global economies but emerging ones, too.

“Plus, there are no secrets anymore. You can’t bury uranium waste without everyone knowing about it,” she said.

Easily shared information doesn’t prevent companies from trying to keep secrets, however. Werhane points to the Volkswagen diesel emissions scandal. The case she has developed explores why hundreds of engineers at VW and Bosch knew that the company was selling cars that didn’t meet requirements, yet no one spoke up. Three university students working on a research project initially raised the issue of the cheating software. The company eventually confessed to installing it on nearly 600,000 diesel cars in the US and 11 million worldwide, lapses in judgment that have cost the carmaker an estimated $33 billion to date.

“Lots of companies go off the rails. They have blind spots. Mostly, it is people looking at the world narrowly, and they don’t see the train coming down the tracks,” she said. “We teach our children to ‘go along.’ People ‘go along’ with what their boss wants.”

She points to the hard road that whistleblowers travel when they speak up. “Most are ostracized and made to feel unwelcome,” she said.

Werhane said she has designed this class to give students the tools to make ethical decisions throughout their careers, long before a situation reaches whistleblower status. “We can teach ethics, although a few of my students have gone to jail over the years. We need employees to get beyond ‘feeling’ it’s not right. That kind of language makes it easy for a manager to push back. This class teaches reasoning skills so students can articulate their thoughts and layout the financial and reputational repercussions of making wrong decisions.”

Werhane believes everyone has the capacity to exercise moral imagination – which is the ability to ask oneself very simple questions such as these: What am I doing? Can I make some changes to this corporate culture? Are there viable alternatives? She also notes that there are moral minimums, or basic principles such as “do not murder, torture, maim, or treat any human being with disrespect” that cross students’ increasingly global backgrounds and beliefs.

But will this lead to a time when unethical behavior is considered universally taboo? In the US, she thinks the penalties will need to be much stronger before things change significantly.

“Start prosecuting more executives with stiffer sentences. Send a few to Riker’s Island instead of a white-collar prison. Ghastly consequences will make them think twice,” Werhane said.

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