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Business Ethics in the News

A discussion on the week's top business ethics stories by Professor Kirk O. Hanson, Executive Director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics, and Patrick Coutermarsh, Fellow in Applied Ethics and recent graduate of Santa Clara University.

  •  THE GOOD NEWS: IFAD and Unilever Align to Assist Smallholder Farmers

    Thursday, Feb. 27, 2014
    Source: Wikipedia
    Source: Wikipedia

    This week, the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) and multi-national consumer goods corporation Unilever, announced a partnership aimed at improving food security through empowering smallholder farmers around the world.

    The 5-year agreement brings together IFAD's expertise in working with smallholder farmers with Unilever's abilities in sustainable agriculture. The partnership is aimed at improving food security through five pathways:

    1. Raising agricultural productivity
    2. Linking farmers to markets
    3. Reducing risk and vulnerability
    4. Improving non-farm rural employment
    5. Making agriculture more sustainable

    The agreement is a prime example of corporate self-interest being aligned with the achievement of social goals, but Unilever deserves all the credit for proactively forming this partnership and finding this "win-win" situation.

    IFAD and Unilever sign first global public-private partnership agreement (Unilever)

    A Framework for Ethical Thinking (Markkula Center)

     

    NEXT STORY: Unlimited Vacation - best practice or cost-cutting measure?

  •  UNLIMITED VACATION: Best Practice or Cost Cutting Measure?

    Thursday, Feb. 20, 2014
    Source: Wikipedia
    Source: Wikipedia

    The average American receives 2 weeks of paid vacation, but a new trend among Silicon Valley tech firms goes against the norm by offering employees unlimited vacation time. Among the big names to implement the policy are Netflix, Best Buy, and Evernote, in addition to a number of startups. Employers adopt the policy with the hope of keeping productivity up in the long run, as well as a perk to recruit top talent. Employers also tout the policy as a way of “treating their employees like adults,” and building a culture of both freedom and responsibility. But there’s also a silver lining for employers — with unlimited vacation policies, days off are not accrued. This means that when a worker leaves the company, the employer no longer has to provide them with a lump sum for unused vacation time. Furthermore, at many fast paced firms, there is never a “good time” to take vacation, and without clear guidelines from employers, it may result in even less vacation time taken. Are unlimited vacation policies in the best interest of the employees or an underhanded cost cutting measure?

      Patrick: Unlimited vacation policies come down entirely to implementation. When coupled with a constant and extreme pressure to produce results, these policies put employees between a rock and a hard place — and at the end of the day, the company saves money at their expense. To be done right, unlimited vacation policies must be paired with a corporate culture that actually lives by responsibility and freedom, along with a clear message from management that employees are expected to take vacation time. Evernote addresses this by offering a $1,000 stipend, if and only if employees take a one-week vacation: those who don’t miss out entirely.

    A special thanks to Frances Mann-Craik for suggesting the topic!

    Some Companies Give Workers Unlimited Vacation (NBC)

    A Framework for Thinking Ethically (Markkula Center)

     

    NEXT STORY: Trucost Announces 2014 Natural Capital Leaders

  •  THE GOOD NEWS: Trucost Announces 2014 Natural Capital Leaders

    Thursday, Feb. 13, 2014
    Image Source: Pixabay
    Image Source: Pixabay

    Trucost and the GreenBiz Group recently published the Natural Capital Leaders Index of 2014. The index recognizes the leading company of each industry in two categories: Natural Capital Efficiency (best use of natural capital to generate revenue) and Natural Capital Decoupling (increasing revenue while decreasing natural capital impacts).

    "The Natural Leaders index is designed to recognize natural capital leadership -- and in addition, break new ground by identifying those companies that are truly 'moving the needle' by decoupling growth from natural capital impact."

    Among the companies recognized are: PG&E, Kimberly-Clark, Ford Motor Company, eBay, and a number of others. Recognition of the progress made by these companies goes a long way in making this behavior the norm. Check out the rankings with the links below.

    2014 Natural Capital Leaders (Trucost) 

    Natural Capital Leaders Index 2014 Methodology (Trucost)

    A Framework for Thinking Ethically (Markkula Center for Applied Ethics)

     

    NEXT STORY: IS THE TWO-TIER SYSTEM ETHICALLY PROBLEMATIC?

  •  KELLOGG: Is the Two-Tier System Ethically Problematic

    Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2014
    Image Source: Flickr
    Image Source: Flickr

    The 226 workers at Kellogg’s Memphis plant have been “locked-out” from their jobs producing Frosted Flakes and Froot Loops for over 3 months. Company management and the union representing the workers — the Bakery, Confectionery, Tobacco Workers and Grain Millers International Union — reached a stalemate in negotiations in October, resulting in the lockout. The primary issue is Kellogg’s demand of dramatically increasing the amount of temporary workers, who would earn $6 less and be entitled to much fewer benefits: effectively creating a two-tier system at the plant. Under the current agreement, Kellogg has the right to use temporary workers for up to 30% of the workforce, but the union claims Kellogg is now pushing for 100%. The workers, who have had their health insurance suspended by Kellogg, fear that their jobs will either be replaced entirely by temporary workers, or they will be forced to take lower wages. Kellogg, in the midst of a 4-year cost reduction effort labeled, “Project K,” claims that the change is necessary to remain competitive and that current employees will be unaffected by the change. Are two-tier systems ethically problematic?

      Kirk: Kellogg has ignored lessons learned by the airline industry that dividing employees into two classes of citizens won’t work for very long. American Airlines, with a host of others, started a plan in 1983 that instituted a two-tier system separating current employees from future hires into different pay scales. By 1987, the company had to significantly overhaul the program. Two-tier systems create tension between the employees, resentment of management, higher turnover, and further complicate union relations. In the long run, these programs are not sustainable. They undermine the concept of shared sacrifice, shared reward, and make development of a strong corporate culture exponentially more difficult.

      Patrick: I don’t think tiered systems are inherently unethical, although it is largely a matter of fairness. In the case of American Airlines, and most likely the Kellogg lockout, new hires will be doing the same job as existing employees but will get paid significantly less. “Treat similar cases similarly” goes a long way here. Anything else will create an imbalance and undermine the company in the long run. On the flip side, Google famously uses a tiered system, assigning different color “badges” for full-time employees, contractors, and interns. Yes, they create divisions between the groups, but they also strengthen the group identity of the subgroups and incentivize employees to “climb the ladder.” It’s Darwinian, but fair.

    Labor Battle at Kellogg Plant in Memphis Drags On (NY Times)

    A Framework for Thinking Ethically (Markkula Center for Applied Ethics)

     

    NEXT STORY: CVS TO PULL TOBACCO PRODUCTS FROM ITS SHELVES 

  •  THE GOOD NEWS: CVS To Pull Tobacco Products from Its Shelves

    Thursday, Feb. 6, 2014
    Source: Wikipedia
    Source: Wikipedia

    CVS Caremark, the largest drugstore chain by both sales and pharmacy sales, announced Wednesday that they would no longer sell tobacco products at its stores by October of this year.

    "We came to the decision that cigarettes and providing health care just don't go together in the same setting" - Larry J. Merlo, cheif executive of CVS.

    The company anticpiates a loss of $2 billion in sales from removing tobacco products, but hopes to make up some of that with smoking cessation programs, beginning with a campaign to help half a million Americans stop smoking. While $2 billion is a fraction of the company's $123 billion revenue (in 2012), this is a proactive measure on their part in demonstrating their commitment to health care services.

    There's also an ethical angle here as well: is this an example of CVS going above and beyond, or should we expect this from all stores with pharmacies?

    CVS Vows to Quit Selling Tobacco Products (NY Times)

    Ending Tobacco Sales in Pharmacies (Journal of American Medicine)

    A Framework for Ethical Thinking (Markkula Center for Applied Ethics)

     

    NEXT STORY: OLYMPIC SPONSORS HIT WITH MASS PROTESTS

  •  2014 WINTER OLYMPICS: Corporate Sponsors Hit With Mass Protests

    Wednesday, Feb. 5, 2014

    The 2014 Winter Olympics are fast approaching, but it’s not the athletes that are getting the attention, it’s the protestors. Their target? The top 10 corporate sponsors of the Olympics. Protests are primarily due to Russia’s stance on gay rights, coming to a head with a law passed this June by the Russian Parliament banning “propaganda of nontraditional sexual relations.” At a Coca-Cola PR event swarmed by protestors in London, a poster read, “Coca-Cola sponsors anti-gay Russian Olympics. Boycott Coke!” All Out, an LGBT-rights group responsible for many of the protests, recognize Coca-Cola’s good record on supporting gay rights in the United States, but is calling on it to do more: “At the very least, they should speak out, consistently with their own values.” Corporate sponsors contribute a substantial portion of the budget for the Olympics, and some say this gives them the ability and obligation to influence how the games are run for the better. On the other hand, speaking out may undermine the company’s relation with the IOC and hosting country. Are the corporate sponsors of the Olympics obligated to use that “seat at the table” to advance social goals? Is it inconsistent of Coca-Cola not to expand their advocacy for gay rights into this sponsorship?

      Kirk: I am sympathetic with corporate complaints that they cannot take on every social issue involving every business or event partner they work with. Nonetheless, there are some events so prominent and some partners so odious that the corporate sponsor should voice its disagreement with the behavior or policy of the partner. Coca-Cola, according to a website called Adbranch, was one of three beverage sponsors of Hitler's showcase 1936 Olympics in Berlin. I hope the company regrets this decision. But does Putin's personal identification with the Sochi Olympics and the actions of the Russian Parliament rise to the level where Coca-Cola must withdraw, or at least voice their disagreement. I would say yes, they should at least voice their disagreement prominently, though I would then be tolerant of their continuing as a sponsor. Their claim to be a liberalizing influence requires that they be strongly on record in Sochi as being supportive of gay rights.

      Patrick: I think the primary issue here is whether multi-national corporations are obligated to keep a consistent message across all areas of operation. In my view, yes, multi-nationals should have a consistent message across the board. If the corporation decides to take a stand, whether it is on principle or for the goodwill of its customer base, it is obligated to follow through with that position. This isn’t to say that we should expect them to take a stand on every issue at hand, but if there isn’t a commitment to consistency, it’s not a position the corporation should be taking; especially in the age of social media where it will get out quick if that's the case. Now, Coca-Cola isn’t necessarily supporting the views of the Russian parliament on gay rights, but in this case, I think that silence constitutes an inconsistency in its message. A secondary issue is on the nature of the Olympic games, and whether they should be insulated from political discourse — what do you think?

    Corporate Sponsors Faulted for Sochi Participation (Al Jazeera America)

    A Framework for Thinking Ethically (Markkula Center for Applied Ethics)

     

    NEXT STORY: JPMORGAN INVESTS $1 MILLION IN HIGHER ED FOR VETERANS

  •  THE GOOD NEWS: JPMorgan Invests $1 Million in Higher Ed for Veterans

    Monday, Feb. 3, 2014

    JPMorgan Chase announced this past week that it will invest $1 million to fund higher education programs for U.S. military veterans, in partnership with Florida State College, University of South Florida, the University of Texas, and San Diego State University. The funds will be used to build programs for student veterans, aimed at increasing retention and graduation rates.

    The investment continues JPMorgan’s work with veterans, including the creation of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University, dedicated to the social, economic, education, and policy issues veterans and their families face. In addition, JPMorgan has hired over 6,300 veterans itself, and leads a campaign to encourage other companies to do the same.

    We are impressed by JPMorgan’s efforts to assist veterans, and hope that more corporations follow its lead. What's your take on its new programs?

    JPMorgan Chase Announces $1 Million Investment in Higher Education Programs for U.S. Military Veterans (MarketWatch)

    A Framework for Thinking Ethically (Markkula Center for Applied Ethics)

     

    NEXT STORY: WHO IS RESPONSIBLE IN A SHARING ECONOMY?

  •  UBER: Who Is Responsible in a Sharing Economy?

    Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2014

    With a $4 billion valuation, Uber is among the fastest growing startups around. The app-based service helps people find a taxi and then facilitates the transaction, but what’s getting more attention is that just about anybody with a car can register with Uber to be a de facto taxi. With this new “sharing economy,” many questions of regulation are emerging, some of which are coming to a head with a wrongful death suit filed on Monday against Uber. Sophia Liu, a 6-year-old girl, was struck and killed by an Uber driver on New Year’s Eve. The driver, Syed Muzaffar, was on his way to pick up his next fare at the time of the accident. Uber’s legal team has argued that because Muzaffar did not have a fare at the time, “he was not providing services on the Uber system during the time of the accident.” The family’s attorney has countered that because he was on his way to pick up a fare, he was in fact representing Uber at the time of the accident. For drivers like Muzaffar, Uber has commercial insurance, but it only kicks in when there is a customer in the car; otherwise, the driver must have their own coverage. Is Uber accountable for the actions of its drivers in-between fares?

      Kirk: In the sharing economy, we do put ourselves at more risk. While it may not be practical for Uber to screen and license every driver, online resources could enable them to weed out the least capable by checking driving and criminal records, and by requiring adequate insurance. There is a rationale for "let the user beware" as long as the rudimentary measures are taken. eBay faced this problem of serving as the market for many and unknown buyers and sellers, and then solved most of the problem with user ratings and payment processing that protected the buyers. Uber should also carry some level of liability insurance, and should not hide behind the distinction that Muzaffar was going to pick up a fare rather than carrying a fare at the moment.

      Patrick: For me, I think Uber’s app clears all this up. Say you want to get a cab. The app recognizes your current location and sends a signal to all of the drivers in the area. If the driver is willing to take the fare, they indicate this on the app, followed by the customer choosing to accept or decline that particular driver. Once done, the app tells the customer how long until the driver arrives, and even tracks the driver by GPS. The transaction starts then and there, and so should Uber’s liability.

    Uber and a Child's Death (NY Times)

    Statement on New Year's Eve Accident (Uber)

    Framework for Thinking Ethically (Markkula Center for Applied Ethics)

     

    NEXT STORY: TOP BUSINESS ETHICS STORIES OF 2013

  •  Top Business Ethics Stories of 2013

    Monday, Jan. 27, 2014

    Current events never leave us with a shortage of new business ethics issues to wrestle with; and 2013 was no exception. Here are the 10 business ethics stories of 2013 that you need to know. 

     

    Click the link to view the interactive version on Scribd.

     

    1. NSA’s Surveillance Program (PRISM)

    Without a doubt, the revelations of the NSA’s widespread surveillance network made the biggest waves this year. Among the troubling details that emerged was the participation of Google, Apple, and Facebook in the program.

    2. Snowden 

    Certainly impossible to separate from the PRISM program, but in addition to the privacy issues raised, Snowden’s actions also forced a reconsideration of what an organizational whistleblower is, and what role conscience plays in such matters.

    3. Bangladesh Factory Collapse

    The collapse of Rana Plaza, a multistory textile factory, in April last year is among the worst industrial disasters ever. In the fallout of the collapse, Western retailers faced a great deal of public pressure, and were forced to reevaluate their labor policies in Bangladesh.

    4. The London Whale

    The London Whale trading debacle of 2012 continued to play out in 2013, resulting in over $6 billion in loses and a slew of regulatory fines. Senate reports revealed widespread instances of JPMorgan traders hiding underperforming derivatives, exceeding risk limits, and the outright manipulation of investments.

    5. Rise of the Activist Shareholder

    Among the buzzwords thrown around this year, “activist shareholder” got around more than most. Procter and Gamble, Apple, Sony, and a handful of others found themselves in the line of fire. In their wake, a number of questions regarding fairness, fiduciary responsibility, and investor relations have emerged. 

    6. International Tax Loopholes

    Certainly not a new issue, but with governments at all levels strapped for cash, the issue of tax avoidance is as important as ever. As always, firms have gotten amazingly efficient at exploiting loopholes, particularly those that emerge in the international arena. The question remains, are firms obligated to adhere to the “letter” or “spirit” of tax law?

    7. Cyber Attacks

    Despite being pushed out of the public consciousness by the NSA revelations, the number of cyber attacks aimed at U.S. firms reached troubling levels. Among the fallout of these attacks is the issue of how companies ought to respond to a security breached. Many chose to sweep it under the rug, but there has been a growing trend toward transparency.

    8. Twitter IPO and Gender Diversity

    In light of Facebook’s IPO, Twitter seemed to do everything right; that is, everything except having a gender balanced leadership team. At the time of filing, Twitter had no women amongst its board, major investors, or its executives (save for Vijaya Gadde who was appointed 5 weeks before filing). The story grabbed headlines and brought the issue of female representation in startup and tech companies to the front page.

    9. Culture Clash in Business Dealings in China

    GlaxoSmithKline and JPMorgan raised eyebrows this year for its business practices in China (the former even facing criminal action). The Foreign Corrupt Policies Act forbids companies “from offering anything of value to foreign officials to gain improper advantages.” On the flip side, gift giving is a major part of business relationships in that part of the world, leaving U.S. firms with a thin line to walk.

    10. ObamaCare and Corporate Conscience 

    ObamaCare is the most hotly contested piece of legislation in recent history. Among the many resulting storylines is the string of court cases in which small business owners claim that ObamaCare infringes on their “corporation’s religious conscience.” The issue still remains and is proving to be the next saga in the corporate personhood debate.

     

    NEXT STORY: ARE APP DEVELOPERS ON THE HOOK?

  •  GOOGLE: Are App Developers On the Hook?

    Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014
    Monday, Google removed two Chrome browser extensions (think “apps added to your web browser”) from its store after they were found to be installing unwanted software and redirecting users to affiliate links. The two extensions, “Tweet this Page” and “Send to Feedly,” began as legitimate services, created by individual developers and offered free of charge. In both cases, the original developer sold the extension to a company who then took advantage of existing subscribers to disseminate ads. Send to Feedly’s founder, Amit Agarwal, sold his extension used by 30,000 to an unidentified party. “It was a 4-figure offer for something that had taken an hour to create and I agreed to the deal, says Amit. He has since published a blog post apologizing to existing users, and stated that taking the deal was a bad decision. While many corporations publish apps and extensions, a great deal of these services are made by nonbusiness entities and are offered free of charge. Do independent developers have the same obligations to their users as corporations? Is Amit Agarwal correct in calling his decision a bad one?
     

      Kirk: Anytime you have 30,000 people using a product, you have an obligation to not sell out to someone who might corrupt it or change it in ways that exploit users. Agarwal and others like him clearly want to cash out, and rightfully so. But the glaring problem here is that Agarwal did not identify whom he was dealing with. In this case, it seems like the buyers refused to identify themselves, or at least made it very hard to do so. This alone is enough to say Agarwal should've passed on the deal.

      Patrick: First, kudos to Amit for acknowledging his role in the situation. To start, I get where Amit was coming from: “I’m just a guy that made an extension… I don’t have customers.” But the way I see it, when Amit entered the market to sell the extension those existing users became “paying customers;” that is, he was then using them as leverage to get a deal. With that, I think certain obligations emerge; at the least, Amit should’ve announced the change in ownership to existing users.

    Google pulls malware Twitter and Feedly extensions from Chrome (The Guardian)

    I Sold a Chrome Extension but it was a bad decision (Digital Inspiration)

    A Framework for Thinking Ethically (Markkula Center for Applied Ethics)

     

    NEXT STORY: HOW MANY MINUTES DOES IT TAKE TO EAT A HAPPY MEAL?