Patricia H. Werhane is the Managing Director of DePaul’s Institute for Business and Professional Ethics. In 2008 she was named among the “100 most influential people in business ethics” by Ethisphere Magazine
. Werhane co-founded the country’s leading ethics organization, the Society for Business Ethics, as well as its respected journal, Business Ethics Quarterly
. She has written or edited 23 books, and her current research focuses on poverty reduction through for-profit initiatives.
My interest in business ethics started in the ‘70s.
After World War II, the idea of medical ethics emerged in response to the development of life-saving technologies. Physicians began to struggle with the question, “Should people be kept alive at any cost?” By the ‘60s, the interest in ethics had expanded to the business community, as people began to examine the corporation’s responsibilities to stakeholders — not just shareholders, but also customers, employees, and society. These inquiries continue to drive work in the field — mine and others’.
Catholic universities were the leaders in bringing applied ethics to the classroom. By the mid-‘90s from 1/3 to 1/2 of business schools required an ethics course of undergraduates; today, that figure is close to 60 percent. When I joined DePaul’s Department of Management in 2003, we were among that group: we had an ethics class in our undergraduate programs but not in our graduate programs.
In 2007 VISION twenty12 put the spotlight on ethics, since its first goal, Enrich Academic Quality, includes “provide opportunities for all students to learn ethical systems and demonstrate ethical practice.” The Institute for Business and Professional Ethics responded by launching “Ethics across the Curricula” to help faculty integrate ethics in their courses. Within that framework, we’ve been working on embedding ethics into several courses within the MBA program.
At DePaul, I’ve formed highly rewarding academic partnerships with like-minded researchers concerned about ethics in our global economy. For example, I worked Laura Hartman, Vincent de Paul professor of business ethics at DePaul, and Scott Kelley, assistant vice president for Vincentian Scholarship in the Office of Mission and Values, on Alleviating Poverty through Profitable Partnerships
(2010) in which we document that the best way to reduce poverty is to help people help themselves with loans that they have to pay back.
That seems crass and commercial – we sound like scrooges! — but we’ve seen this model work again and again. Some of the largest companies in the world participate in micro-lending or cottage industry projects with great success. On the flip side, lending gives the participating companies a foothold in developing markets; in this way, being ethical is a smart part of a long-term business strategy. If companies do not get into the developing world, they’ll fail by 2050.
My next book, another collaboration with Laura Hartman, will explore the ways that “mindsets” can block a person’s or an organization’s ability to see ethical issues. I’m also working on article about the “myths and misinformation of healthcare reform” as an ethical problem in our society.
Because of DePaul’s leadership in ethics-related research and pedagogy, we were recently asked to take over publication of the Business and Professional Ethics Journal
– a pioneering journal in the field. We’ve invited a group of well-known, international ethicists to be on the editorial board, under the direction of Mollie Painter-Morland, associate director of DePaul’s Institute for Business and Professional Ethics and associate professor in the Department of Philosophy.
All the work being done at DePaul around ethics — and there’s so much! — connects powerfully to the university’s mission and to St. Vincent DePaul himself. This work, in this place, at this time, is really worthwhile.