ILLUSTRATION BY PHIL WHEELER
When corporate leaders and college students get together to talk right and wrong, the San Antonio business community benefits
Leanne Fuentes wants to make a difference in the world. A senior at St. Mary’s University, she is convinced that the way for her to make her mark is by pursuing a career in business, which is why she is working toward a double major in finance and risk management-marketing and spends an astonishing amount of time outside of class burnishing her experience and skills, including through a summer internship at General Electric Capital and as vice president of finance for the campus arm of the American Marketing Association. “I wanted to study business because I enjoy working with people and understand that with a career in business I have a chance to make a difference in the lives of others,” says Fuentes.
Even though she is extremely hardworking and ambitious, Fuentes doesn’t have a win-at-all-costs attitude about her fledgling business career. Born in Cuba, she moved with her parents to San Antonio when she was just 5 years old. The influence of her parents—Fuentes’ father studied finance and accounting in Cuba before moving to Texas where he purchased a pest control business—and her time at St. Mary’s have given her an ethical foundation that’s important to her. “My parents have influenced me and taught me to be kind, honest and to uphold strong moral values,” she says. “Attending St. Mary’s has had a strong influence about the importance of service and giving back to the community.”
Fuentes’ conviction that she can meld her strongly held personal ethics over the course of a career in the corporate world could seem like youthful naiveté given the steady stream of headlines about malfeasance in the business world. There’s no need to do intensive Google searches or dredge up poster boys of bad corporate behavior like Enron and Tyco to wonder whether it’s possible to simultaneously do well and do good in business. Just this past September, a new discouraging example came from German automobile manufacturer Volkswagen admitting that it had installed software able to cheat emissions tests on millions of its diesel vehicles. Nor is it just the news that paints an ugly picture of ethics in business. “You see it in movies and dramas. Business people are the new boogeyman,” says Forrest Aven, Ph.D., dean of the H-E-B School of Business and Administration at the University of the Incarnate Word. “In the movies, it used to be the Russians. Now it’s big corporations and business.”
That narrative is one that Aven and many others in the San Antonio business community believe is both largely inaccurate and crucial to correct. An important way that is being done is through the Ethics in Business San Antonio (EIBSA) initiative. Run by the Ecumenical Center for Religion and Health, EIBSA brings together leaders from the corporate world and students, like Fuentes, from St. Mary’s, Trinity University, the University of Texas at San Antonio and University of the Incarnate Word to discuss matters far removed from profit margins and revenue projections.
In everything from lectures and panel discussions to luncheons and student visits to local businesses, the program provides up-close and personal examples of how it’s possible and profitable to avoid ethical shortcuts in business careers. “It gives students hope in reality beyond the text book, and they see that business can be done in a way other than what they read in the paper,” says John Hornsby, EIBSA’s chairman and director of employee connections at Zachry Group, a construction and engineering company. “It gives them a fresh outlook that it can be done, and students get to experience business leaders who live out who they are in the business world.”
The importance and effectiveness of these face-to-face interactions is rooted in the legitimacy that executives from companies like H-E-B, USAA, the Zachry Group and Frost Bank have with students. In some ways, it’s akin to the weight children give to advice offered by people other than their parents. “It’s one thing for students to hear from me that there are a lot of ethical leaders out there,” says Matthew Gilley, Ph.D., professor and Bill Greehey Chair of Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility at St. Mary’s University’s business school. “The key benefit of this is validation of what they’ve learned for a long time: that the majority of people are good and want to do the right thing.”
Learning from example
EIBSA launched in 2007, a year when the corporate world was busy giving itself a serious black eye. The bubble of the subprime mortgage crisis began to burst, setting in motion the near collapse of the American economy and a Great Recession that caused millions of job losses and a massive wave of foreclosures. Though the subprime mortgage crisis was by no means born in San Antonio, it was consequential and far reaching enough that it prompted a local response. “At the time, there was obviously a need to make sure we were all focused on business ethics,” says Mary Beth Fisk, executive director and CEO of the Ecumenical Center, which was founded in 1967 and provides a wide range of services, including faith-based counseling and training to clergy, religious workers and health care professionals. “A group of business leaders assembled to set forth standards for the program.”
One of the challenges when formulating an ethics program is defining what it means to be ethical. Though the Ecumenical Center’s work is faith-based, its origins are multi-denominational, which means that its approach to ethics is not based exclusively on the teachings of one particular religion. Instead of adhering to a specific theology, EIBSA programs are meant to draw on a person’s individual beliefs with the understanding that all ethics are grounded in fundamental truths that transcend different faiths. “I remember in seminary we had a course in ethics, and I can’t tell you anything I learned other than that the foundation of all ethical behavior is the Golden Rule,” says the Rev. Louis Zbinden, who is chairman of the board of directors at the Ecumenical Center and former longtime minister at First Presbyterian Church. “Beyond that are the words honor and truth and trust and duty. Those are the bedrocks and everything grows from that.”
Helping students hone their own individual definition of ethics is often step one in EIBSA gatherings, an exercise that involves writing down the five values that are most important to them. But that definition is just the start. In Q&A sessions, workshops and other EIBSA events, students are asked to think through how their ethical standards would hold up in various situations common in the business world. For example, when Bobbi Ruiz was a student at the University of the Incarnate Word, she attended an EIBSA event about accuracy in advertising. The confab included a presentation by local attorneys who showed examples of misleading or patently false ads as a way to spark discussion about ethics, personal responsibility and honesty. One of the examples Ruiz recalls was an ad for an inflatable kiddie pool. The box showed multiple children romping in the pool. “Then there was the actual product that barely fit one toddler,” she recalls. The product also was decorated with slightly different colors and shapes than what was advertised.
No matter what an individual’s faith or beliefs, the students agreed it did not pass the Golden Rule test. But for Ruiz, it was most helpful to see that local business people reacted similarly. “Now that I spend the majority of my day in a corporate marketing environment, I am able to see first-hand how honesty and transparency play a huge role in a company’s reputation,” says Ruiz, who was a graduate student when she took part in EIBSA programs. “It’s easy to speak highly of something you truly believe in, and I feel blessed to have found that in the early stages of my career. After my experience with EIBSA, I’m not sure that I would work for a company that I didn’t believe operated in an ethical manner.”
Another element of the presentation included a Saturday Night Live clip spoofing a commercial for Dannon’s DanActive yogurt drink. The fake commercial features Kristen Wiig playing Activia spokesperson Jamie Lee Curtis. Wiig lampoons the company’s real-life claims that one DanActive yogurt a day “keeps you regular” (you can probably imagine the scatological humor that ensued). The company’s claim was false. Not only were they a source of mockery, the assertion prompted the Federal Trade Commission to order Dannon to remove the claim from its ads and pay millions in fines. These examples were meant to elicit conversation not just about what is legal to say, but about what’s right and wrong. “We are trying to take things beyond compliance,” says Hornsby, of Zachry Group. “That is the floor, the bare minimum of the law. We want to strive to be way above that and to have people talk about the value of listening to their values and seeing where it takes you.”
Lessons for the teachers
There are ample reasons why it makes sense to target instruction and discussion about ethics at college students preparing to begin their working lives. For John Ferguson, a senior vice president of Frost Bank and an enthusiastic participant in EIBSA’s programs, it’s at least partially about inspiring young people to continue to seek the guidance of their ethics at all turns in their career. “The truth is, life is going to throw you some curve balls,” he says. “The best way to respond is to have a sure footing on what you think is right ethically.”
But it’s also a recognition that prepping a cadre of ethically minded employees is good for the entire San Antonio business community—and the city itself. “This program is like a butterfly effect,” says Ferguson. “One small change now becomes a big change later.” Ferguson and others say that San Antonio is fortunate to have a business community that is not marked by scandals and is already keenly interested in promoting ethical behavior. “I came from Houston, and no knock on Houston, but I find that ethics here in San Antonio is on people’s minds more,” says Aven.
There have been other, less expected benefits of these interactions between students and business people. Many of the professionals who engage in these programs and discussions have found that it’s helpful to them personally. After all, successful business people are extremely busy working to please customers, devise new strategies and products and courting investors. EIBSA can be a reminder about the importance of slowing down, being deliberate about decisions and viewing them all through an ethical lens. “When I moderate a panel and go to a business meeting in the afternoon, I show up a little different and ask more probing questions and take a step back,” says Hornsby. “It makes a difference and reminds you of what’s really important in life.”
Fuentes, the St. Mary’s student, will soon be on the hunt for a job. For her, it was helpful to speak with professionals who prioritized finding an employer with values that align with their own. One of the business people she met during an EIBSA luncheon spoke about resigning from a company that he didn’t feel he meshed well with. “He told us about the importance of finding a career that aligns with our values so that we can find happiness and also be more productive employees and leaders,” she says. That’s exactly what Fuentes will be doing once she graduates.
Why Ethics is Good for Business
It’s understandable why idealistic San Antonio college students about to enter the corporate world would be eager to hear that it’s possible to be a success and stay true to their values. Local companies and business people themselves understand as well that doing the right thing is also profitable. “Every business leader I talk to gets it,” says Matthew Gilley, Ph.D., professor and Bill Greehey Chair of Ethics and Corporate Social Responsibility at St. Mary’s University. “Ethics builds a great culture and that leads to a great company.” Here are a few reasons why:
Talented people want to work at ethical companies
A host of studies through the years have found that MBA graduates and other workers are keen to work at companies that have a strong reputation for corporate social responsibility. In fact, most Americans say they wouldn’t work for a company with a bad ethical reputation.
A halo effect
Another benefit for businesses that exhibit solid ethics is that they benefit from what’s known as a “halo effect.” In essence, companies that customers believe are ethical produce better products and services, which encourages consumers to want more of them.
Bad behavior is expensive
Studies have shown that companies convicted of a crime suffer not only penalties imposed by the government, but they also take a beating from customers and investors.