Ethics overlooked at McCombs

Ryan Nill

Nicole Renaux graduated from the Red McCombs School of Business in May 2010 and got a job at Black Star Co-op, a beer brewery and pub that is owned cooperatively by about 3,000 of its customers. At Black Star, the workers are organized democratically. For a reasonable fee, anybody can be an owner and run for the board of directors and participate in beer design meetings. The workers are split into four functional teams — beer, kitchen, business and pub — and they elect their team leaders and a board-staff liaison to keep the workers accountable to the board. Renaux says of her time in McCombs, “We were primed to work for Fortune 500s … I had limited experience in small business education and nothing in democratic businesses.” She believes her education didn’t adequately prepare her for the job she currently holds.

Renaux would have liked to have learned the types of skills that are necessary to meet the challenges of a democratically managed workplace — for instance, practical instruction in how to deal with accountability and discipline when there is no explicitly designated manager. She is not alone in that wish. Many incoming students at campuses nationwide are demanding that more of their course work be dedicated to topics of moral and ethical import.

The McCombs School isn’t oblivious to changing trends. Robert Prentice, director of the Business Honors Program and a professor of business law and ethics says that he has seen an increasing number of “kids who want to make a difference, they want to make money to pursue their passion.” But currently, the school requires that less than one percent of the total coursework required for an undergraduate degree be dedicated to ethics. Worse, the little coursework that is necessary to satisfy this requirement has not been effective. “There is no strong correlation between character and ethical action or between philosophical background and ethical action,” said Prentice. Prentice had a hand in creating “Ethics Unwrapped,” a series of videos currently on the McCombs School’s website. The videos are based on the recently developed study of behavioral ethics and focus on how people make ethical decisions.

Because she works in a democratic workplace, Renaux says,  “You don’t just have to impress one person to get promoted; you have to impress all your co-workers.” When all your co-workers evaluate you and a different owner is walking through the door every few minutes, there is no place to hide.

After a year on the job Renaux was elected to be the board-staff liaison at Black Star Co-op. Despite the title, traditional roles do not necessarily apply: Owners are customers and contribute ideas for new brews; food service staff can be elected to managerial positions and interact with owners. In an “Ethics Unwrapped” video titled “Role Morality,” the narrator explains that people are willing to break their personal ethics codes as long as it fits with the role they play at work or in society. Renaux says that McCombs teaches particular roles, such as finance and marketing, which can stifle innovation in addition to acting in ways that may befit the role but harm the business.

Perhaps the most damaging role we are all expected to play is that of employee. Carlos Perez de Alejo is executive director of Cooperation Texas, based in Austin, where he instructs people  on how to start worker cooperatives. One of the biggest challenges he faces is teaching students to break out of the “employee” mentality, forgetting work the instant they punch out and submitting to authority. Once a person becomes an empowered “owner,” there is a spillover into communities, culture and society. Given the economic and societal benefits of democratic workplaces, McCombs should listen to students and integrate non-traditional business structures such as social enterprises, benefit corporations, nonprofits and cooperatives into its curricula.

Nill is an ecology, evolution and behavior senior from San Antonio.