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TCU professor: Ethics policies essential for business

🕐 3 min read

Shannon Shipp’s ethics education is unending.

One day, the Texas Christian University ethics professor shakes his head as a student rationalizes workplace theft, and another day sees a different student speak proudly about the gravest of matters.

“He said he sold cemetery plots: ‘I’m the best sales guy they have,’” said Shipp, recalling the incident at an Aug. 9 Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce luncheon.

The student’s self-described secret to success? Contacting families of traffic accident victims after their identities are reported on early-morning news reports. Like other students asked about job experiences in Shipp’s classes, the cemetery plot salesman was asked if he ever faced an ethical challenge. He didn’t miss a beat.

“No! No!,” the student said, according to Shipp. “It wasn’t like a tentative ‘No’, a let’s-talk-about-it ‘No’. It was a dramatic ‘No’ and ‘How dare you even suggest anything other’.”

Another student described a restaurant training experience. After a manager explained basic duties at a new employee orientation, an assistant manager told the new staffers that stealing hamburgers, silverware and other items was acceptable while drawing the line at lobster tails and beef filets. Later in the year, a new employee failed to honor the distinction between burgers and filets and simply stole everything.

Shipp’s student recalled the incident, incredulous that the theft resulted in the entire staff’s termination.

“’Can you believe that guy? He broke the rules,’” said Shipp, recalling the student’s comment. “That’s my world.”

Such are the relative impressions that ethics hold on individuals – and one of many reasons that Shipp encourages companies not only to have ethics policies, but to learn those policies and follow them.

Codes of ethics are created not only to meet regulatory requirements, but also for public perception.

“The most important thing an ethics code does is it sends a signal,” said Shipp, explaining that such policies help build a company’s reputation and image in the business community.

“That’s a pretty powerful symbol in itself that the company is concerned enough in the topic to put together a code,” Shipp said.

Yet problems often persist for firms with ethics policies. Some codes are outdated and do not reflect the current workplace. Meanwhile, some firms follow general policies not tailored specifically for their own company.

As director of the Neeley Ethics Initiative at TCU’s Neeley School of Business, Shipp helps develop courses in ethical decision-making for undergraduates and MBAs. He also has taught ethical decision-making to executives at Ben E. Keith Co., Union Carbide Corp., the U.S. Army and similarly large organizations. Instilling students and employees with a respect for ethics and its importance in the business world is job one for Shipp, who urges all employers have such policies.

“The first step is having one,” said Shipp, who recommends several steps for companies that formulate an ethics policy: refer to it often; make sure it applies to all employees, from hourly workers to top executives; make sure it is relevant; make sure all employees are familiar with it and understand how to use it; and ensure a balance between legal compliance and internal policy compliance.

He also drew a distinction between mere legal compliance and ethical adherence.

“Legal requirements are about things you must do or must not do, whereas ethical requirements are about things you should do or should not do,” Shipp said.

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