Written on 24 January 2014.
For three days, EDHEC’s Lille campus hosted the EBEN conference which brought together researchers in ethics as well professionals in within the world of business ethics; what topics were covered?
The European Business Ethics Network (EBEN) is above all an academic network of business ethics researchers, but it is also open to practitioners, or professionals, within major companies who hold key positions such as Head of Ethics, Ethics and Compliance Officer, Director of CSR, Internal Ethics Officer, etc. During the course of the annual conference, EBEN attempts to stimulate dialogue between ethics researchers and professionals responsible for this branch within corporations. In Lille, we upheld this tradition by organising round tables which involved the participation of directors from major companies such as Total, L’Oréal, La Poste, Auchan, EADS, GDF Suez, etc. Moreover, the overarching theme of the 2013 conference was established by EBEN members and not by academics.
This ‘licence to operate’ theme addressed the legitimacy of corporate activities in the eyes of the public – a rather delicate subject for companies involved in extraction activities (mining, oil, etc.) or those who manage large-scale projects such as hydroelectric dams. For multinational companies involved in such projects, there is an enormous level of expectation from the general public, from NGOs and from communities whose immediate environment might be affected. A responsible company would endeavour to address these expectations and begin a dialogue between all stakeholders with the aim of obtaining a ‘licence to operate’. However, in such situations, loopholes in overall governance, or more often its nascent state, often push companies into a political role. This raises deeply important questions on the legitimacy of this political power, but also more concrete questions such as, “What are the pitfalls to avoid if a constructive dialogue is to be established with different stakeholders?”
This topic has been broached in a number of talks, but the annual EBEN conference is open to discussing a number of topics alongside the conference’s main theme. This year, we had some ‘special tracks’ on leadership, and on CSR and finance, amongst others.
Will these studies be published?
There will be a special issue of the Journal of Business Ethics which shall include the best contributions. It shall be jointly edited by our colleague, Björn Fasterling, and myself. We have made an initial selection of papers which have now been sent to referees to be assessed.
Could you shed some light on the type of ethics dialogue that occurs between companies and researchers?
To begin with, two radically different types of ethics research must be identified. Firstly, there is the genuine question of ethics, applied to the business world, in which researchers ask normative questions regarding behaviour that is morally acceptable or unacceptable, the limits of corporate responsibility and that of economic agents or individuals within an organisation. It is essentially a philosophical clarification and justification of the standards (explicit or implicit, imposed by law or not, etc.) that should ideally be adhered to in the competitive environment of the market economy. A competitive environment obviously does not imply the absence of moral rules, as there are also ethical rules, as is the case in a combat sport, for instance. Secondly, many ethics researchers are focused on empirical research and they do not rely on a philosophical argument, but rather on different social science methodologies. For example, they assess the extent to which sexist discrimination has reduced, whether socially responsible investments generate as much return as other investments, if CEOs who have an ‘ethical’ image have, on average, better financial results than their counterparts who do not; or they can ask questions such as, “What organisational forms are the least likely to have slip ups when it comes to the temptations of corruption?”, etc.
It should be noted that, in order to formulate meaningful research questions, these empirical studies presuppose clear and normative answers. For instance, it would not be useful to assess whether anti-corruption measures are efficient if the types of transactions considered as morally condemnable forms of corruption are not clearly defined from the outset.
Companies are very interested in empirical research as it can be usefully applied, but company directors, and notably those who sit on ethics committees, often find themselves confronted with ethical dilemmas that they would like to resolve from a normative standpoint.
What is the role of teaching of ethics in a business school? What does it mean for EDHEC?
Good professionals are not only technically competent, but they are equally respected for their integrity. This applies to managers as well as to all professionals. Therefore, business schools wishing to produce true business leaders must ensure that students following their curriculum are trained not only to acknowledge the ethical dimensions of their behaviour and their professional decisions, but also to master the conceptual framework that allows them to both formulate and analyse problems they will inevitably be confronted with – such as conflicts of interest, questionable business practices, etc.
EDHEC has a long tradition of teaching business ethics. This is certainly linked to the social Catholicism of entrepreneurs in the north of France, where the roots of the business school lie as do its links with Lille Catholic University. In the 1980s, the professors who taught the subject at EDHEC, Michel Falise and Jean Moussé, were among the first to publish research on business ethics within French companies. Today, students have mandatory ethics lectures (in some schools only electives are offered) and specialised ethics seminars (ethics in finance, marketing, etc.), and in terms of research, a comparative study conducted last year showed that of all the French business schools, EDHEC had produced the most publications in the domain in recent years.