Cornell Tackles Ethics and Corporate Culture

Corporate scandals crop up in the news at such a pace these days it seems the breakdown in ethical behavior has permeated every rung of the corporate ladder. With mounting pressure from the current economic landscape, business people and lawyers may find the line denoting ethical behavior increasingly difficult to discern, worry faculty at Cornell.

To remedy that, Law School professor W. Bradley Wendel and The Johnson School senior lecturer Dana M. Radcliffe have joined forces to teach the course Ethics and Corporate Culture. “The premise of this class is that organizational cultures can make it harder or easier to comply with ethical requirements,” says Wendel.

“Managers frequently complain, for example, that lawyers are deal breakers, who raise endless objections and insist on planning for various doomsday scenarios. Lawyers, on the other hand, can occasionally feel that they’re kept in the dark about the ultimate goals of management, and are being used only to provide legal cover for what corporate officers have already decided they want to do. Having JD and MBA students in the same classroom helps highlight the client-lawyer interaction as an aspect of ethical culture.”

“This isn’t an ordinary ethics course,” says Radcliffe. ”Our focus is on the ways a corporate culture can influence ”˜good’ individuals toward unethical conduct. This is true of the organizational cultures of both law firms and businesses, so that new lawyers and MBAs can find themselves dealing with similar ethical traps and pressures.”

A capstone event in the class is coming up on April 22, when The Johnson School welcomes Barbara Ley Toffler as presenter of this year’s Day Family Ethics Lecture, “The Cult in Culture.” Toffler is the author of “Final Accounting: Ambition, Greed, and the Fall of Arthur Andersen,” and her experience is a stark example of how a skewed corporate culture can tempt even well-intentioned employees into ethically questionable behavior, a problem explored in the half-semester course.

Admission to the event is free and open to all.


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