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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.

  •  GMOs: Should Corporations Curb Their Political Power in Local Elections?

    Monday, Nov. 4, 2013

    Tomorrow, Washington state residents will vote on Initiative 522, a law that would require genetically modified foods sold in stores to be labeled “clearly and conspicuously.” While the debate on labeling is as contentious ever, Initiative 522 made the news for another reason: for raising more money than any other initiative campaign in Washington state history. Proponents of labeling have raised a respectable $8.4 million, the majority of which coming from small donations and advocacy groups. But the record setting belongs to the campaign against 522. Backed by out-of-state biochemical and food-industry corporations, the No on I-522 Committee has raised over $22 million. The law on this is clear. In the Citizens United case in 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations are entitled to make unlimited contributions to political campaign ads and other political tools. The question remains, are Monsanto, Coca-Cola, and Kellogg—contributors to No on I-522—unfairly influencing the political process? Even if legally permissible, should they hold back on their financing of Initiative 522 ads?

      Patrick: With 20 other states considering similar initiatives, and growing support from Congress at the Federal level, Initiative 522 cannot be viewed in isolation. It is certainly troubling that an out-state corporation can potentially sway a local or state level election (we’ll find out for sure Tuesday), but we have to recognize that these corporations are very much stakeholders in this decision. Initiative 522 may very well set the precedent for how this matter is decided on a national level: a legitimate concern of these corporations. Provided that corporations stay within the bounds of campaigning regulations, I don’t see it reasonable to compel corporations to “hold back” their legal powers to influence political decisions. Whether unlimited campaign contributions should be a right granted to corporations is another story.

    Washington could be the first state to require labels on GMOs. Here are the stakes. (Washington Post)

    Foes of food-labeling Initiative 522 set funding record (Seattle Times)

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

     

    NEXT STORIES: NFL BROADCAST BLACKOUTS AND THE PUBLIC GOOD

  •  NFL: Broadcast Blackouts and the Public Good

    Friday, Nov. 1, 2013

    In her final days as Chairwoman of the FCC, Mignon Clyburn has her sights set on nixing the FCC’s enforcement of broadcast blackouts. Most commonly used by the NFL, blackouts occur when a game has not been sold out, resulting in the game not being televised in areas within close proximity to the stadium. Roger Goodell, Commissioner of the NFL, defends the policy by claiming that blackouts drive people to games, in turn bolstering the stadium experience. In recent years, blackouts have come under heavy scrutiny causing the NFL to ease up on its definition of sold out: now standing at 85%. Leading the charge is a group of sports economists who claim that blackouts have no effect on ticket sales and only serve to punish consumers. While the NFL can bypass the FCC’s ruling by amending their contracts with providers, it still leaves the question: is the broadcast blackout an unethical business practice?

      Patrick: The first thing that needs to be said is that using blackouts is a dumb business practice. Blackout rules force networks and sponsors, who stand to lose the most from a blackout, to buy thousands of tickets to meet the “sold out” requirement. Now, with the reports showing that they have no effect on attendance, it makes one wonder why this is even a question. But, is it ethical? Probably not. While there are a number of ways to approach this one, including the discrimination between local and national customers, the fact that most stadiums are funded with public money offers a quick fix. Local residents invest in the stadium to have the option of going out to watch the game, not to be forced to do so.

    Acting FCC Chairwoman Clyburn looks to gut NFL blackout rule (LA Times)

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

     

    NEXT STORY: DO CORPORATIONS HAVE A CONSCIENCE?

  •  CONSCIENCE: Do Corporations Have a Conscience?

    Monday, Oct. 28, 2013

    In the wake of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), in particular the provision that companies must offer a wide range of contraceptives under their coverage, those in opposition are taking to the courts with a novel argument: the ACA violates their companies’ religious conscience. Three appellate courts have heard the case—two striking down that religious expression applies to corporations and one left undecided—meaning this issue may be on its way to the Supreme Court. Corporations have a long precedent of being considered “persons” on a range of issues, but many fear the consequences of granting corporations free expression of religion. For one, corporations could select new hires, as well as terminate employees, for partaking in perfectly legal behavior that happens to violate the company’s religious code; for example, becoming pregnant out of wedlock, or marrying someone of the same sex. On the other hand, the plaintiffs claim that their companies are an extension of their religious lives and should be granted the same protections. So what do you think? Do corporations have a “religious conscience?”

      Patrick: Granting corporations a “conscience” would be worst-case scenario for promoting ethical business practices. For one, the plaintiffs’ argument is self-defeating. They argue that their companies’ have religious standing by extension of their own individual rights to religious expression, not by virtue of the corporation itself. Religious reflection, prayer, and decision making do not happen at the corporate level: it’s the people that make up the corporation that engage in matters of conscience. “Corporate conscience” guarantees only one outcome, the complete undermining of the conscience of its employees. Perhaps the biggest impediment to ethical business is the belief that individual autonomy is reserved only for those at highest pay grade. Corporations are made up of people. It’s time we remember that.

    Can corporations pray? The next expansion of corporate 'personhood' (LA Times)

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

     

    NEXT STORY: PRIMARK STEPS FORWARD

  •  THE GOOD NEWS: Primark Steps Forward

    Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013

    With a death toll of 1,129, the Rana Plaza factory collapse earlier this year stands as one of the most devastating industrial accidents in history. There were many ethical failings that led to the collapse, but one company is setting the example on how to move forward. Primark, a global clothing retailer based in Ireland, announced three major initiatives today continuing their support of the victims of the collapse, in addition to their efforts to improve worker conditions.

    1. Primark has set a timetable for beginning long-term compensation to the victims and/or their dependents; the first company to do so.
    2. Primark has committed to a third short-term financial payment to the victims and/or their dependents.
    3. Primark is calling upon other brands involved to make a contribution by paying short-term aid to the 3,600 workers.

    Primark spokesperson: "The Company calls on other brands sourcing from Rana Plaza to now contribute a fair share of this tranche of aid.”

    Statement from Primark Stores on Rana Plaza

    ETHICAL TRADING: Our Work in Bangladesh

     

    NEXT STORY: WHEN WASTING RESOURCES IS BETTER FOR THE BOTTOM LINE

  •  MARATHON OIL: When Wasting Resources is Better for the Bottom Line

    Monday, Oct. 21, 2013

    1,500 fires are burning bright in North Dakota. The culprit? The intentional burning of natural gas. In a process called “flaring,” oil companies burn the natural gas that rises up in the process of drilling for oil. Relative to oil, natural gas is a cheap commodity, resulting in the oil companies not having an economic incentive to build the necessary pipelines to make use of the natural gas. While the process inflicts less environmental harm than simply releasing the gas, flaring produces climate-warming carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The practice is expanding rapidly, and today, the value of flared gas in North Dakota has reached approximately $100 million a month. Do businesses have an ethical obligation to make use of all available resources, even if it hurts their bottom line?

      Patrick: Corporate social responsibility is a hot topic, but is still coming to terms with implementation concerns in light of corporate fiduciary duties. Under our current system, expecting corporations to intentionally take losses is equivalent to stretching them in opposite directions. For now, the solution is to artificially create the economic incentive for sustainable business practices; whether that be landowners taking a hard line on making use of natural gas when negotiating, or government subsidies for the pipelines necessary to transport the natural gas. Of course sustainable business is the desired endpoint: it’s just a question of how we get there.

    Oil Companies are Sued for Waste of Natural Gas

    A Framework for Thinking Ethically

     

    NEXT STORY: CINTAS INVESTS IN WORKER SAFETY

  •  THE GOOD NEWS: Cintas Invests in Worker Safety

    Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2013

    Cintas Corporation, a leading provider of workplace uniforms, first aid and safety, among other corporate solutions, has partnered with American Society of Safety Engineers (ASSE) to advance worker safety. The partnership will entail ongoing networking, education, and research focused on improving safety in the workplace. The research will culminate in sharing best practices at ASSE meetings, contributions to specialty journals, and the creation of an online “Body of Knowledge” database of best practices and articles.

    "Working with ASSE will allow us to gather insights from safety professionals across the nation, uncover top concerns in the workplace and develop solutions to further reduce worker injuries and illness."
    Nancy Peterson, Senior Marketing Manager, Cintas.

    Check out the press release at the link below, and let us now what you think!

    Cintas Aligns with American Society of Safety Engineers to Advance Worker Safety

    A Framework for Thinking Ethically

     

    NEXT STORY: WHERE ARE THE WOMEN IN THE TWITTER IPO?

  •  TWITTER IPO: Where are the Women?

    Friday, Oct. 11, 2013

    After the release of its IPO filing, Twitter has come under heavy scrutiny for the lack of women amongst its board, investors, and executive team — save for Vijaya Gadde, General Counsel, who was appointed 5 weeks ago. High tech has long been criticized for having a gender imbalance, with only 5.7% of employed women in the US working in the computer industry; but in the wake of Sheryl Sandberg’s top seller, “Lean In,” the issue is front and center in the public consciousness. Critics of Twitter claim that the lack of gender diversity is among the many symptoms of Silicon Valley’s chauvinistic and male-dominated culture. Those close with Twitter’s CEO, Dick Costolo, report that finding a woman board member has been a priority, but has been a difficult process. Is Twitter in the wrong for going to IPO without a diverse leadership team? If so, should the public hold them accountable?

      Kirk: The scarcity of women is a clear sign of the power of corporate cultures, and no doubt, Silicon Valley’s culture is one characterized by male dominance. No entrepreneur or venture capitalist would say that they hold a bias toward women, but it’s inevitable that unconscious biases develop in cases like this. Startups are hesitant to promote women because they don’t fit the traditional mold of Silicon Valley leadership, leading to even fewer women in these positions. It’s a vicious cycle. The only way this is going to get solved is by a dedicated effort by Silicon Valley firms to address this culture issue, and a steady stream of public pressure to keep them honest.

      Patrick: To start, if Twitter went out 5 weeks ago to get a female in a leadership position (which they did), that’d be just as bad as not having any women at all. Yes, firms need to make an effort to get women in positions of power, but that doesn’t mean that hiring women should be a PR move or something done out of political correctness. It takes a sustained effort to make a sincere attempt at inclusiveness, better yet, remove arbitrary exclusion. This situation does not have a quick fix. Twitter made their bed a long time ago, now it’s time to lie in it.

    Curtain Is Rising on a Tech Premiere With (as Usual) a Mostly Male Cast

    Vivek Wadhwa: Silicon Valley Has a Code Name for Sexism & Racism

    Twitter's female "problem" -- This is why mobs don't appoint public company boards

    A Framework for Thinking Ethically

     

    NEXT STORY: HOW MUCH CONTROL DO YOU HAVE OVER YOUR ONLINE IDENTITY?

  •  MUGSHOTS: How Much Control Do You Have Over Your Online Identity?

    Monday, Oct. 7, 2013

    Of the many emerging online industries, this one may be a surprise: online mug shot databases. At sites like JustMugshots, visitors can search through these databases — which include anyone who has been arrested — and view mug shots, name, arrest location, age, and charges. The owners of these websites claim they are providing a valuable public service; “Everyone has a right to know if your babysitter has been arrested,” is a common catch phrase. The flip side to this “service” is the crippling effect that these databases have on those with arrest records: even those who were not convicted, or otherwise had their record expunged, find their job prospects severely crippled. These sites depend on this debilitating effect for revenue, and do so by charging anywhere from $40 to $400 to remove the mug shots. In the wake of a great deal of criticism, the mug shot sites are quick to argue that arrest documents, including mug shots, are of public record and to prevent their publishing is unlawful on Constitutional grounds. Are there some types of public information that should not be actively promoted or monetized? Is charging for the removal of the photos a legitimate business practice, or the equivalent of extortion?

      Kirk: Of course there is public information that shouldn’t be actively promoted. The primary concern with the emergence of “Mug Shot” sites is they don’t tell the full story. Take for example, a person who was wrongly accused of a crime, or otherwise a victim of circumstance or error. These sites offer no protection for such a person, other than to empty their pockets and give into the site owners’ shakedown tactics. The integrity of public records leaves no room for the ulterior motives of these mug shot sites.

      Patrick: I take the site owners' Constitutional claims to have considerable weight. Yes, this behavior is certainly exploitative and probably does more harm than good, but freedom of the press covers even those who are out there for a quick buck. Kudos to Google, for adjusting their algorithm to push down mug shot sites in search results, and PayPal, Discover, MasterCard, and the other companies that refuse to do business with them. Mug shot sites are free to publish what they like, but it doesn’t mean we have to give them the forum to do so.

    Mugged by a Mug Shot Online

    A Framework for Thinking Ethically

     

    NEXT STORY: RETRAINING VS HIRING ABROAD

  •  IMMIGRATION REFORM: Retraining vs. Hiring Abroad

    Friday, Jun. 28, 2013

    Thursday, the Senate passed a comprehensive immigration bill, which among other effects will allow Silicon Valley companies to hire more foreign engineers. Tech firms have long been voicing concerns about the shortage of skilled workers in America, and have lobbied for the ability to import more foreign talent by increasing the cap on H1-B visas. Labor groups have been pushing back by arguing that equally qualified Americans be offered jobs before firms look abroad. They also argue that firms should retrain current employees before looking abroad for the most up-to-date workers. Some studies, such as one published by the Brookings Institution, have found that the presence of high-skilled guest workers does not have a negative impact on the employment levels of college educated-Americans of that area. Do tech firms have an obligation to hire Americans over foreign talent?

      Kirk: I believe companies should commit to some level of retraining. Too many Silicon Valley companies see foreign engineers as the solution to all hiring needs, and even as low-cost temporary labor. At minimum companies ought to be working with academic institutions, including online learning companies, to prepare American engineers for the latest technologies.

      Patrick: Companies should invest in their people, but those people do not necessarily have to be American. While Americans do not have a special claim to jobs at American firms, the rate at which American employees are being left in the dust by new technology is problematic. Firms must embrace that there is a dual responsibility in keeping employees up-to-date: it’s on the firm to offer the opportunity for continued training, and on the employee to take them up on it.

    A Bill Allowing More Foreign Workers Stirs a Tech Debate

    A Framework for Thinking Ethically

     

    NEXT STORY: CORPORATE TRANSPARENCY IN HIGH PROFILE TERMINATIONS