Blogconfidential: No flag of surrender

Each week, Dr Margot Feelbetter poses a dilemma and offers advice for readers to respond to online. This week: No flag of surrender

December 9, 2010

Should my university sacrifice its values for money? I work in a business school, helping to run a very successful MBA programme. We have managed to maintain our place in a competitive market in spite of the recession and are managing to attract star lecturers from home and abroad. We are very proud of our achievements.

Recently, we were approached by an up-and-coming textile company from an "emerging" market. It wants to pay us for our marketing expertise. It has also suggested that we create a version of our MBA programme specifically for its managers.

It sounds like a wonderful opportunity to expand our reach. However, my partner is a human geographer and when I told him the name of the company, alarm bells rang.

He spent several hours checking with international colleagues and has concluded that this company is endemically corrupt: it uses underage labour and does not allow workers to unionise.

My own reputation was built in the area of "the ethical business", looking at the extent to which the free market can operate ethically - it's not all "unacceptable" business practices. So I cannot find it in myself to engage with a company that - apparently - sacks people or otherwise abuses them when they ask for basic rights.

The alternative is likely to be redundancy - we have to lose 15 per cent of our staff despite our profitability. What should I do?

How far are we prepared to compromise our values when it comes to big business opportunities? As we are driven to make our institutions financially watertight, this is a dilemma many managers will face. I am impressed with your willingness to ask difficult questions that many would ignore in the rush for profit.

Your first task is to substantiate your partner's accusations. You simply cannot take this any further without concrete proof that the business really is run in an unethical way.

If you manage to do that, you can raise the issue with your line manager - carefully. Perhaps rather than simply trying to push the company out of the picture, you could suggest that this is an opportunity to help it improve its work practices. Research on productive workers and human rights suggests that this represents an exciting opportunity to make a difference. This is the only way: you either reject the firm and lose your job, or use evidence of "what works" in terms of productivity and an engaged workforce.

In the longer term, you could consider organising a conference on ethics or editing a publication that could act as a primer on the subject.

What you must not do is sit back and raise the white flag of surrender. Stand up for what you believe and show courage. You will probably find that others in your programme support you - hopefully some of your colleagues would also like to play their part in building an ethical framework for business.

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