Jack Abramoff went to jail to learn the importance of business ethics. You can just watch a video.
In 2000, I was running a small brand consulting firm when I landed a choice piece of business in Houston. The client was a promising startup in the new sector of online energy trading, Altra Energy. At the time there was an 800-pound gorilla in the market, Enron Online, and we all knew that beating them at their own game would be challenging. This TV commercial at the time perfectly expressed Enron’s presumed dominance in the energy trading world.
Unbeknownst to this lowly Don Quixote, as Altra and I polished our spears for battle, a self-inflicted disease was already killing the beast from within. On August 22, 2001, Enron Vice President Sherron Watkins delivered a letter to chief executive Ken Lay sharing her concerns that the company might be an “elaborate hoax.” The ugly train wreck that followed has become a case study on unethical business conduct, and Enron became an exclamation point for the call to do a better job teaching ethics and corporate social responsibility in our schools.
Ethics Unwrapped: Beyond Business Ethics
Fast forward a dozen years and McCombs School of Business has just launched Ethics Unwrapped, a charmingly effective free video teaching tool designed to stimulate thought and discussion about ethics and corporate social responsibility in university and high school classrooms. Director Cara Biasucci says she hopes the series will make teaching ethics more attractive to professors.
“I hope that it creates a new generation of leaders that act more ethically,” she says. “If we can start building the consciousness and awareness in students at 18, 19 and 20 years old, then in 10 years we may have leaders that have a greater grounding in ethical action and a stronger commitment to act ethically.”
As the series itself affirms, achieving that end depends on whether students can move through their careers while avoiding the effects of Moral Equilibrium, Self-Serving Bias and numerous other ethical trapdoors, many of which are entertainingly addressed in a series of short Concepts Unwrapped videos.
Hint: you don’t have to be a student to enjoy or benefit from Ethics Unwrapped.
The Ethical Role of Communicators and Consultants
It is tempting to fall into a “role” within the organization and believe that the burden of ethical behavior falls on someone else in the decision structure. “I’m just the communicator, the marketer or the brand consultant, that’s above my pay grade,” might be the rationalization. That’s called Role Morality, and yes, there is a Concepts Unwrapped video about that, too.
This common rationalization is what causes lowly administrative employees to criminalize themselves (by shredding documents or deleting emails, for example) in support of a coverup of unethical behavior that might have occurred far above them in the corporate structure. “I am just doing my job” is a surprisingly powerful sentiment, and it could easily be adopted by a communicator or consultant who believes he or she is there to serve a grand purpose, even if it gets shady around the edges.
Jack Abramoff, the disgraced D.C. lobbyist (and subject of the powerful video In It to Win), today looks back on his nefarious behavior and says, “I thought I was a good guy, working for worthy people.” That mindset justified any number of slippery acts, all while thinking he was fighting the good fight.
Don’t think it could happen to you? Well, you don’t know Jack. He went to jail and ruined his career to learn the importance of ethics and corporate social responsibility. For you, perhaps it will only take watching a video.
Conflict of Interest Disclosure: I played a minor role as a contributor to the Ethics Unwrapped video series, and I want you to like it, share it and use it in your own career and organization. Besides, its really cool.