Randy Cohen Tells It Like It Is
Ethics are what people what to make of them. I still think we need an ethics course before anyone graduates from the College of Business. Many of my colleagues do not believe ethics can be taught; still, that is a matter of judgment.
The first problem students encounter in business communications is the accuracy of their data. Can we trust the data you are presenting? You trust the data by the way you accurately express your figures. Do your figures add to 100 percent? Only you know whether your data came from a reliable source. If you made up your figures, you have to live with your conscience and the reality someone may go back and check your figures. Statistics don't lie; only liars figure.
Years ago a graduate student in our College decided to cheat on a master's thesis. He plagiarized or copied every single chapter from a textbook. He then made these chapters his thesis or graduate paper to receive a degree. Fortunately, the plagiarism was caught before his thesis ended up on the library shelves as original work. When caught, he replied: "I thought I would get caught someday." He was practicing situational ethics. Whatever worked on the moment was what he cared about. If no one noticed the thesis was plagiarized, he could get his degree. Many of us go through life this way.
A footnote exists to this story. The student, when eventually confronted by the faculty committee, pleaded for the major adviser not to tell his wife or boss. Apparently, remorse had occurred. Perhaps you may say too little, too late. The student should have had remorse long before copying the master's thesis's chapters from another book. Never count on people not checking your work. You never know what the professor is reading or where sources could be found. It is not wise to play the odds.
Students continue to amaze me with their lack of attention to detail. You cannot guess at who the author might be when you access a database for an article summary or bibliographical assignment. You have to print the right article that has the right author. People will check if they are interested in the reference. A mild form of plagiarism results when the student places any author on the bibliographical assignment.
A few semesters ago a student came running to me about the Considerations-Analysis-Decisions to be turned in. She was upset because her table and chart had the wrong data. Could she redo that part of the report? I admired her integrity and rewarded her by allowing the redoing of the data. The student cared about the accuracy of the data. That story illustrates how important it is to present the data as they actually exist. If the data do not come out the way you expected, you still have to report the facts.
A while back I listened to Michael Josephson, founder of the Josephson Institute, and guest on Politically Incorrect with Bill Maher. Mr. Josephson made the point we should not cheat on our income taxes because everyone else is doing it. We should not pad our expense accounts because everyone else is doing it. One of the panelists, a rap singer, made a startling admonition: "You must cheat on your college entrance forms in order to get into college." I doubt if every Black community will accept that point of view from the rap singer. I liked the phrase, erosion of the moral ozone, that Mr. Josephson used to describe the sinking of ethics. If you would like more material on the erosion of ethics, please write or call the Josephson Institute of Ethics at:
310 Washington Boulevard, Suite 104
Marina del Rey, California 90292
All kind of publications exist, including reasonably priced topics of Ethics in the Workplace, Relationships, Government, Law, Business, Youth, and Journalism.
To tie further with the Josephson Institute, you may be interested in an ethics quiz promoted by the Los Angeles Times on June 8, 1997. Seven questions confronted the reader interested in Ethics. You are asked to answer yes or no to each ethical dilemma:
- You apply for a job you want very much. You're sure you can do it well, but unless you make some untrue statements, the job will go to someone else. Would you "enhance" your resume?
- Your 12-year-old could get into a much better school if you lived in your sister's school district. She offers to let you use her address to enroll your child. Would you do it?
- A health insurance application asks about previous injuries. If you admit to any, premiums would go up $50 a month for your insurance. Would you hide them?
- The bill at a posh restaurant shows a $60 error in your favor. A friend suggests you say nothing, but leave a large tip. Would you do it?
- Your 13-year-old looks 11. You could save $14 at an amusement park if you say he is younger than 13. Would you do it?
- You badly need a loan that you will get if you understate what you owe. Would you do it?
- The auto body repair person offers to fix damages not caused by your recent collision as part of your insurance claim. Would you do it?
- My idea (not part of Josephson study): You are leaving an underground parking structure of a hotel. You inadvertently sideswipe another car while backing out. You could save a lot of insurance premiums and headaches in a different city by not leaving a note on the windshield. Would you leave?
- My idea (not part of Josephson study): You have just received change from the supermarket clerk. You noticed the change is incorrect, and the clerk has made a grievous error. Should you keep the change?
You will find what your score means on another part of the Web called "Answers Mysteriously Appear."
In the waning days of the Monica Lewinsky scandal at the White House, people and, especially ministers, are beginning to ask whether our society has lost its moral compass. All kinds of ethics and communications questions have been raised. Should a secretary lie to protect the boss? What is considered a white lie and a serious lie? Can we differentiate lies?
Does loyalty have a limit? These days we hear it is important to be loyal to your profession, not necessarily your job. Too much downsizing and layoffs have caused a cynical attitude from the employee about the workplace. You can always choose to leave your work, but jobs are not that easy to find. Let's return to secretaries and their responsibilities. The Wall Street Journal, February 3, 1998, featured a serious of ethical dilemmas and questions that should cause us to pause. A sampling follows:
- Is it okay to fabricate the minutes of a meeting at the boss's request?
- What should the secretary do if the boss says to burn a file if the boss dies?
- How should a secretary act if the person sees the boss stealing?
- Should the boss lie about the boss's whereabouts?
- Should the secretary share confidential information about hiring, firing, and layoffs?
- Should the secretary notarize a document without witnessing the signature?
- Should the secretary remove or destroy damaging material?
If a person is fearful of losing a job, fraud committed by the boss may be overlooked. Certain states have whistle blower laws, but even that protection may not be enough. Also, a federal whistle blower law exists. Professional Secretaries Association (formerly National Secretaries Association) counsels its members to look out for cop-out words. For example, the secretary should not rely on "My boss told me to do it." A secretary should be willing to suggest the discomfort if something unethical or unlawful is done. Usually, the boss will back off at this point.
A secretary can even overcome the proverbial, the boss is not in. The secretary can ask the boss the following: "Are you sure I should say you are not available?" The issue always becomes whether to tell fellow employees confidential information about hirings, firings, and impending layoffs. Usually, the secretary can rephrase the request: "That's a good question. Why don't you go and ask the chairperson of the board or the CEO about it?" That kind of answer usually deflects the person from inquiring too far.
The Beardstown Ladies from Beardstown, Illinois, have struck with some inaccurate data. These ladies (many of them grandmothers in their 70s and 80s) are known for their investment guides, including the Beardstown Ladies' Common-Sense Investment Guide. They are accused of placing innaccurate average rates of return in their books. Unfortunately, some sharp readers have called to their attention a 14.3 percent error. Can we trust the integrity of their writing? They claimed to have a higher average rate of return for 1984-1993 than the Dow Jones average. That figure is now disputed. I enjoyed the reason for why the data produced some discrepancies. A error in computer input occurred. People enter data. The publishers, Hyperion, of their investment books hired Price Waterhouse to find the discrepancy. Also, the publisher printed and placed correction slips inside the ladies' investment books. If certain investment readers trusted the Beardstown ladies, how serious is the error? One of my students suggested the ladies still made the money. That is missing the point. You want integrity at all times in the writing, whether investment advice, or whatever.
Don't pass up a book called Wear Clean Underwear by Rhonda Abrams. The first chapter is devoted to the thesis of the book about wisdom from Mom about business. When you wear clean underwear, you believe in character and values. Character builds a business, a good business. Business has to rely on its values. We all need to wear clean underwear.
Dr. Donald L. McCabe, Rutgers University, in the Los Angeles Times (February 16, 2000) has produced a new report on academic dishonesty. In the report with a sample of 2,116 sophomores, juniors, and seniors from 21 colleges and universities, McCabe concluded 68 percent of them in Business either plagiarized extensively or cheated on tests. Many schools are now adopting honor codes to combat this rash of cheating. As you would expect, men admit to more cheating than women. Fraternity and sorority members are higher on the list than non-affiliated members. Sixty-eight percent of the entire sample engaged in some form of serious cheating where no honor code was present.
At some colleges, professors or proctors are not even present during exams. If a student is found cheating, the student is automatically expelled, especially if a form has been signed beforehand, from the university. That method works better in smaller sections rather than classes of 100 or more students. The point is this. We all need to pay more attention to instances of cheating. When 45 percent of the entire sample admit to copying a few sentences of material without footnoting in the paper, something is wrong. That kind of plagiarizing only enhances the problem with academic dishonesty. The figure becomes even higher (without honor code) when 54 percent of the entire sample say they got questions or answers from someone who had already taken the test. What can we do as administrators, professors, and students?
We can let our professors know about possible evidences of cheating. After all, especially if the professor grades on a curve, your grades are affected by others who may cheat. Professors can do a better job of patrolling their own classrooms and becoming aware of electronic devices going off, such as beepers. In my own case, I have banned beepers and pagers during exams. The good news is this. Honesty is rearing its head again. With colleges instituting honor codes and becoming more vigilant (with stiff penalities), students are getting the message. I particularly liked the following Number 2 pencil handed out at UC Davis: "Fill in your own bubble or be in trouble." Administrators can more strongly back their faculty members who see evidences of cheating. The process for reprimanding and expelling the student can become smoother. Perhaps, the mountain of paperwork can be reduced. The student who cheated needs to have papers that say something in the file.
In that same study with 2,113 students, 1,000 faculty across the country were surveyed. Nearly 88 percent of those replying observed some form of cheating. However, 32 percent of that number never reported the instances of cheating. A typical fear was expressed this way: "I accuse someone of cheating, and the next thing I know I'm sitting in the administration building with the student, the student's parents, and the family lawyer." My answer to that concern is document, document, and document. You, as a faculty member, need a strong case before accusing the student. Even then, we have heard of instances at UCLA where the professor was personally threatened by a group of students. A hopeful sign exists at UC Davis where faculty turn in three times the number of cheaters as any other UC campus. Community service and special essays take the place of harsh punishment, if the student owns up to the cheating in a counseling session.
You often hear the cliche, the level playing field. If students realize that honor codes and other deterrents exist, they may begin to appreciate the importance of an honest education. The culture has to be changed, according to the Dean of Arts and Sciences, University of San Diego. Hopeful stories are coming out of campuses with honor codes, including UC Davis. One engineering student and now graduate student phrased the situation and the lumps this way: "I knew I made a mistake and I admitted it. I had to take my punches."
The Wall Street Journal(September 11, 2000)featured an article about a business professor at the University of Dallas who talked to his students about an opportunity with an Internet stock. The students, being impressionable young people, not only listened to the professor's words of wisdom about the stock market, but also invested in the stocks he recommended. One student lost his entire life savings of $130,000. Another student lost several thousand dollars. The University had no clause in its contract about professors separating their personal business from the classroom business. The professor maintained he was simply exercising his freedom of speech. Several ethical questions suddenly occur: Was the professor right in influencing the students to purchase the stock of, what later turned out, to be his own company? Should the professor have warned his students about how the stock was dipping and they should be careful about investing? Should the reality of the stock market be separated from the classroom?
The professor is now being reprimanded by the University, and several of the students are thinking about suing. How all this could have been avoided if the professor had stayed away from personal business and enlightened the students about the risks of investing heavy sums in the market. We have seen too many Internet stocks come and go. Some companies rush to IPOs (initial public offerings) without considering their investors. Did the professor have an obligation to enlighten the students he had personally started the company?
Recently, I attended a fine seminar given by two members of the CSUN Journalism Department, Professors Linda Bowen and Bobbie Eisenstock. Their seminar was entitled "What Every Faculty Member Needs to Know about Student Plagiarism." To review, plagiarism means taking ideas that are not your own and giving yourself credit for them. You have also interfered with the fairness to the author.
During the seminar the two women presented a series of exercises about attribution. You are asked in each case to tell whether or not you document. Also, you are asked to tell whether you use quotation marks or a footnote or both. The situations follow:
You may not have heard of Randy Cohen, author of the book, The Good, The Bad, and the Difference: How to Tell Right from Wrong in Everyday Situations. He is a columnist for The New York Times Magazine and writes a Sunday column called "The Ethicist." He was recently featured on Good Morning America TV program and raised some fascinating questions from the audience assembled. The audience asked him all kinds of pertinent ethical considerations that require more than a moment of thought.
- You are writing new insights about your own experiences.
- You are using an editorial from your school newspaper, The Daily Sundial, with which you disagree.
- You use some information from a source without ever quoting it directly.
- You have no other way of expressing the exact meaning of a text without using the original source verbatim.
- The quote you want to use is too long, so you leave out a couple of phrases.
- You really like the particular phrase somebody else made up, so you use it.
Some of these ethical consideration questions will appear soon on The Josephson Quiz on the Situational Ethics link. For example, should you return incorrect change in a supermarket after the clerk has made a mistake? When I talked to my relatives, certain of them suggested you should not return the change if it is under a dollar. What do you think? With these kinds of ethical questions Cohen has assembled an entire book of his columns. Mr. Cohen admits to not having all the answers; however, he asks his readers to use common sense in giving their answers. Ethics depends on situations; it always will. However, situations are altered by conscience and the right thing to do.
Cohen bills himself as an "everyday ethicist," one who has studied music, attended school as a graduate compositional student, and written for Late Night with David Letterman. Cohen works in his column (since 1999) on persuasion. Ethics govern the way we live with each other. I like the way Randy Cohen likens David Letterman, the talk show host, to a moral judge sitting over how the writers and the other members of the cast produce.
Mr. Cohen raises the following question that most people write somewhere in writing to his column: "Do you tell?" That is a sticky point, because sometimes the "sleeping dogs should lie" rather than blurting out the entire truth. You may hurt people by being so ethical that you tell the entire truth and nothing but the truth. You can still be ethical by withholding something. Now, before the reader immediately jumps on me, think about what is said between the lines. Let's say you have the option of telling your best friend at work the boss is cheating on his wife and sleeping with a member of the office staff. You want to make sure the best friend shares all that information with the appropriate staff. Maybe it is better, from an ethical standpoint, to stay silent instead of hurt the best friend, the boss, and all associates as you continue your ethical vendetta.
Randy Cohen operates from a simple premise: "How should I act now?" According to Cohen, ethics is doing, not just knowing. Ethics involves knowing and getting to know other people. The issue is choices. I like what Cohen suggests next. Think like a hero. Ask yourself: "What would Abraham Lincoln do?" In this day and age when priests, teachers, professors, lawyers, accountants, and CEOs are questioned for their ethics, we need some kind of framework to help us get through the ethical morass.
We want a better society. That much should be clear. Randy Cohen wants a better society, along with an individualistic emphasis on ethics. We demand better from our business people. We expect our entrepreneurs to be honest in their dealings with their customers. The issues are not black and white. Doesn't the question come down to one of treating people with civility?
Randy Cohen raises one other valid point in his book introduction. What are your intentions? Ethics depends on intent.
Last updated Wednesday, September 24, 2003
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