A Publication of WTVP

In countless high schools, colleges, and universities across America, young people are graduating with a variety of degrees. In one way or another, these degrees will be put to use in the workplace. And then the final exam will begin: the exam in the laboratory of real life. One of the sections of life's exam inevitably will be in business and workplace ethics.

In many cases, however, even if the newly minted graduate had a course in business ethics or medical ethics, this part of life's exam will prove very difficult. Instead of case studies in which alternate approaches can be articulated to dealing with the problem at hand, decisions have to be made with the information available now. Even those who've worked in jobs for many years and have been able to get a lot of life under their belts will struggle with ethical decision-making.

Ethics in the workplace rely upon the ability to reflect, a discipline that hasn't been taught in a just-in-time economy. Policies, personnel decisions, disciplinary issues, and specific workplace practices don't lend themselves to "just in time." Or perhaps this approach is taken but demonstrates that the real ethical principle at work is expedience-whatever solves the problem at the present moment and postpones hard decisions until much later-and possibly to another person.

There certainly is a role for teaching ethics in educational settings. There are some consistent approaches in history that find expression again and again because ethics, in the end, is about being human in all of its diverse forms and in many types of social communities. Whether we refer to Aristotle, Plato, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad, Western philosophers, women philosophers, African philosophers, or contemporary philosophers, they all present two phenomena: a body of teaching and a method of reflection.

When I taught philosophy, the students discovered lasting principles that find renewed expression at key points in history. In my teaching methods, I stressed philosophy isn't to be learned by rote, simply to be spouted back on tests, but to be applied to self-examination to clarify the question, "What do I believe about my human existence, and why?" Students also learned a method of reflection so that, when they came into life situations, they could defend their decisions with much more than a weak statement like, "Well, that's what I felt like doing." On what basis did you feel that way? Why do your feelings have such prominence?

Another assertion I've made in teaching is ideas and decisions have consequences. Sometimes students have answered with a sullen, "So?" I often answered, "Why?" In other words, why does the student answer with the word, "so?" If one is going to be part of the human community-and if one holds down a job, one usually will be in the human community, either as an employee or as a contractor to an employer-one has to be able to defend why one doesn't care about consequences.

In other words, there's a philosophy of life and business behind the sullenness or lack of care. Defend your position, I demanded of such students. Many times they had never been challenged to articulate why they did or didn't follow a certain course of action. In more "adult" fashion, and with far greater stakes, this type of attitude can surface in the workplace, and some of these individuals move into positions of authority or ownership, with lasting effects. To be sure, there are those with generous spirits and open hearts who make ethical choices, too, and know why they do what they do.

The key point, however, is that many in workplaces don't know why they believe what they believe about work and commerce and people. Unless they're taught something about business ethics and taught how to reflect on their own ethical standpoint, they'll continue to make decisions that can hurt and harm as well as help and grow. In a global economy, they also don't understand why people from other cultures don't know and understand "the American way" (even if we do).

One of the reasons businesses and people get into ethical and legal trouble is they don't think carefully about the ethics of their action. They flunk the life exam of ethics because they haven't been taught to clarify what they believe, think, and assume about the world around them. That's one of the benefits of moving through a business planning process that involves vision and mission, as well as markets and products.

There's a tremendously important place in education for philosophy and ethics precisely because they have definite practical outcomes in business, community life, political leadership, and, of course, in religious practice. That's an element of lifelong learning as adults-if we're willing to be learners. The philosophical journey and the ethical adventure, however, begin in the classroom.

So to all of the graduates, I wish every success moving into the workplace or in the pursuit of additional education and preparation. May you pass the test of life brilliantly and with a clear sense of direction so you can become good decision-makers in the classroom of the workplace and of life. IBI