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In general, I have the belief that most ethics courses whether they be medical ethics or business ethics tend to be taught from too theoretical of a standpoint.  Scenarios are often defined to have black and white answers, and thus the students never actually deal with true moral dilemmas until they are actually on the job.  This is especially true for those who spend their lives in consulting and/or academia, with no real understanding of the pressures that actually happen in an operational environment.  Having gone through some particularly stressful board meetings, I was quite excited when I heard about a new PBS production that will attempt to showcase some of the moral complexity involved:

Banner: In Search of the Good Corporate Citizen

Everyday we hear about business people who gamble on ethics to meet business goals. The ongoing stream of scandals begs the question, “Why does this keep happening?” From an Emmy-winning team of producers, “In Search of the Good Corporate Citizen” weaves together expert panel discussions with personal accounts from real-life white-collar criminals and whistleblowers.

Unable to catch the show on the air, I contacted Light On Production to try and get a copy of the DVD. After several phone calls, Denny Swenson, the producer of the show sent me a *free* copy of their first show, “Hitting the Numbers”!

I think the show is quite well done, and the stories that they showed were truly remarkable. The show leveraged a small panel to discuss each story after they were presented.   The panel was moderated by Thomas Donaldson from the Wharton School of Business and was composed of:

  • William W. George, the former chairman and CEO of Medtronic
  • Ben Heineman, General Counsel of General Electric
  • Donna C. Boehme, former chief compliance officer of BP

Given the show was filmed in 2008, one can reasonably assume that Boehme did not lose her job over the oil scandal.  However, just from the body language of the panelists, it was quite obvious that they were quite dismissive of the idea of having a chief compliance officer and frankly I am as well.  Perhaps such a role is indeed necessary in many large institutions, but it was not clear from the panel discussions how a CCO as described by Boehme would have in anyway contributed to ethical behaviors in an organization.  What was truly disappointing with this panel was that they never really acknowledged how much pressure there was in middle management and how sometimes the decisions are actually not that black and white.  Even with Donaldson offering up truly gray and realistic scenarios, the panel always converged on black and white solutions.  I would assume that the panelists themselves were at least somewhat worried about their professional image if they had mention doubts.  Perhaps true ethical discussions involving business executive can never happen in front of a camera?