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February 02, 2009

Debating Ethics Across Cultures

Catherine New
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What would you do if a client gave you a very expensive gold watch? The question was just one of many discussed at an ethics panel and debate that took place last week at Columbia Business School. Organized by the Student Leadership and Ethics Board, working with the Sanford C. Bernstein Center for Leadership and Ethics, an international panel of students discussed their perspectives and experiences confronting ethical dilemmas or corruption.

“Most of the time the ethical dilemmas are not created at the junior levels, but we are most often responsible for their execution,” said student board member Vicente Brocchetto ’10. “The way we handle these situations can make all the difference.”

Several key points/questions were raised:

  • Knowledge of local customs and how respect is conveyed in different cultures is important. In one example, the matter of taking shoes and hats off when dealing with a local chief was key to winning a negotiation.
  • At what level of materiality does corruption matter? There was an interesting debate about what a manager can overlook, and what a manager cannot, particularly in areas of the world where poverty is prevalent.
  • How the use of the English language for business establishes formality and implicitly suggests that business is operating under a different set of standards.
  • Leverage what you do have, rather than trying to meet or beat local corruption. In an example case of an international firm that confronted bid rigging by regional groups, the firm’s solution was to capitalize and leverage proprietary products available through its global network, rather than engage with local competition.
  • How does perspective change for foreign national managers after training/managing in the United States? How do managers handle different standards for business in the U.S. versus abroad?
  • Prof. David Beim, who moderated the panel, said, “Talk about [differences]. People are reluctant to talk about it because it is personal and can appear embarrassing. When you do talk, you find more options and that there’s more nuance than you might have imagined.”
  • Don’t be afraid to turn down business. “Any quality firm turns down more business than it accepts,” said Prof. Beim.

Photo credit: Public Offering/Catherine New

Comments

by Kanan V. Jaswal | October 06, 2010 at 10:52 AM

I don't think that international managers should worry a lot about offending or not the local sensitivities; their conduct should be guided solely by their own values and principles. And if these are in conflict with the local practices they should take the trouble to explain the differences to the locals. I have seen in my experience that men or women with strong ethics may not be that much loved but they are admired universally. And that pays even in business.

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