Ethics after Socialism:
Ethics and business don't belong in the same sentence. At least in the former socialist countries of Europe. Why would you want to teach ethics to managers, who are compelled to lie, cheat and steal in order to survive in today's economic situation? After this transition is over, companies will only then be able to even think of morality.
These are the comments we heard over and over again during our time working in Bulgaria. And not only in Bulgaria. We have heard these in Albania, Czech, Slovakia, and from colleagues who have worked in Poland and Hungary, as well as from U.S. academics familiar with this part of the world.
Yet it was with cautious hopefulness we agreed to return to Bulgaria and spend one week in Sofia helping the faculty of a small, private business school to integrate ethics into their curriculum.
Knowing this part of the world and how universities typically work, we spent the first half-day focusing on interactive teaching, based on the firm belief that ethics could not be effectively taught using the normal lecture-only approach. So far so good.
Then we moved to ethics. Pandora came, too.
While none of these are unfamiliar to Western businesses, the incidence of these activities is reportedly quite high. In fact, it is so widespread, almost no Bulgarians we talked to could imagine business surviving without engaging in the above behaviors.
As a basis for
beginning the discussion, we shared Kohlberg's (1981) model of moral development,
which has six stages:
Here's how they look, stage by stage (Kohlberg, 1969):
After going over the six stages, the faculty overwhelmingly agreed Bulgarian business was operating mainly in stages one and two. Businesspeople were ethical only when they feared punishment. Under the old regime, they said, everything was forbidden unless is was expressly allowed. Now it is the opposite. Everything is allowed unless expressly forbidden. Very few things are forbidden. Those that are may be ignored, as along as there is little fear of being caught.How to create a new consciousness in such an environment was a daunting task. But we didn't let that constrict us. After all, here were we two, "can-do" expatriate Americans, living in working in Europe for years. George has been in various countries in Europe for 30 years now (currently France), 20 of those working for McKinsey & Co as a senior manager and director. While Dorothy has lived in Prague for two years, teaching MBA students and practicing managers and previously spent 16 years doing similar in the States.So we tried, with virtually no success, to "instill" ethics into the curriculum of these faculty. Even though some of them agreed with the importance of integrity, they were adamant in the belief that for now, such ideas could not work in Bulgaria and would be seen as extreme naivete on the part of businessesmen.
Though this is a highly educated population, ethical principles or moral education were non-existent in schools during the past 40 years. For their part, they quickly learned the fundamentals of changing courses to include ethical principles. We gave them the Teaching Goals Inventory (Angelo and Cross, 1993, 20-21), which includes 52 items, listed as teaching goals. Of these, they chose eight which would foster ethical development of students. They were (original item numbers are at the end of each):
Their reasons for choosing the above were logical, indicating a keen awareness of what constitutes ethical foundations in education. If one understands other cultures, there can be increased understanding of the ethical traditions of that country, which is helpful with international business. Such awareness can also foster a heightened sense of the moral principles of the student's own country, for the contrast often leads to further insights. Learning about other cultures can add to gaining respect for others, though that is also a concept of its own within a given culture. If there is more respect for others, people will tend to behave towards each other in a more ethical fashion. And if there is also a sense of responsibility for one's own behavior, an awareness of conseqences to others and to self will lead to a more moral consciousness. However, in order to achieve this at a high level, people must have emotional health, or else they will not be able to make healthy choices. And they must also have self-esteem and self-confidence, for without those, pessimism reigns. People with confidence are more likely to have internal locus of control, to feel their behaviors make a differerence, that if they behave with integrity, it can have positive effects. On the other hand, pessimists may say, "What's the use? It doesn't matter what I do, the situation will remain the same." Numbers six and seven above are self-explanatory, while developing an informed historical perspective can help students to understand the moral context of today's business climate and what mistakes to avoid in the future to make the situation worse.
Yet even with these understandings, the faculty still insisted that ethics was anathema to current Bulgarian business practice. Students needed help in learning how to survive in this Wild West environment, where many were in the Klondike fever mentality of earn as much as you can, as quick as you can, however you can.
It was more than that, too. It was often a matter of survival. One faculty courageously told us his story. He earns 10,000 Lev per month (less than $200). If he acts with complete honesty, he would pay taxes of 7500 Lev per month, leaving 2500 for living expenses. And as he put it, he baby's diapers cost 2000 per month. What choices does one have under such a system? they asked. Further complicating the matter is the fact that the tax laws change almost daily and almost no one. lawyers and lawmakers included, understand how to be totally legal with taxes.
We approached the brink of helplessness, where some other American academics had arrived. George had talked to some who bluntly said, "Don't bother with Eastern Europe now. Wait with ethics for later on."
But still, we thought, there had to be SOME way, some means to break through the unwillingness to consider ethics as a meaningful sphere of thought. Then we realized we were looking at the situation in dualistic terms of either/or, i.e., either there was corruption or there was not. Could we, instead, see the situation in developmental terms, and look to situations where ethical behavior was practiced, or at least accepted as possible in this climate? And from there, we could build.
We asked the faculty to list business practices, used now or those which seemed to becoming more important. The exact question we asked was"What things does Bulgarian business do well or are improving on that relate to ethical behavior?"
Results were as follows:
At the end of this discussion, the feeling in the group had changed from pessimism and near hopelessness to one of hopeful possibilities. As we continued on this path, the group became more and more upbeat. They decided to focus on quality service as one to consider emphasizing in their curriculum, partly because it was clearly an emerging value in the society and also because the college was in the process of developing a hotel and tourism program. Attention to customer service was vital to the success of the new program.
Behaviors they listed which support these values were:
How could these important concepts be made into a course and also be integrated into other courses? Faculty mentioned using relevant articles from journals and magazines, introducing case studies, identifying a good textbook (if possible), using role plays in class which illustrate good and bad service, individual and group projects (students visit various retail/restaurants and compare levels of service), and have students practice with one another giving service. However, the faculty stressed the vital importance of receiving training for themselves. Since they were all products of a command economy, which held no regard for customers and had no concern for service, they felt an urgent need to learn the foundations of a service mentality. Otherwise how could they do justice to the students?
Overcoming obstacles By this time the faculty were full of energy and enthusiasm for these new ideas, this new approach. Then someone gave the group of dose of reality. How was it possible to take the time to develop this new course and also integrate these concepts into other courses when they were already overworked? And since their salaries were at the subsistence level, most of them used any free time for private tutoring of students. Plus, they were paid by the teaching-hour, not on a salary level. Another issue had to do with the attitude of the school towards academic standards. Faculty felt there was not enough accountability and this was because the school was supported 100% by tuition. Finally, they felt too much like "hired hands," who were rarely informed about what the school was planning or doing. In fact, this workshop was their first opportunity to meet one another.
We therefore promised to act as intermediaries with college administration and list the requirements needed in order for the faculty to have the environment and support needed to introduce these new ideas into the curriculum. In short, how to get the school to be more ethical with faculty and with students. The three major problems we saw here were need for outside funding (grants, donations), the necessity to include faculty in the communication network of the college and even to involve them in some decision-making, and, finally, the need for justice in faculty remuneration, part of which meant paying extra for those involved in developing this new topic.
Conclusions The final questions we asked ourselves was--who learned more this week: us or them? We started the week with a sense of mission. How we were going to help the faculty bring a sense of ethical enlightenment to their students, who were products of an environment which, currently at least, considered ethical thinking as naive? We had tried to prove wrong all that advice telling us it was premature to teach ethics in the post-socialist countries. At the end, we realized the truth lay somewhere in between all these opinions (as is often the case). Speaking of ethics in grandiose terms of moral principles did not work. They were right. We couldn't suddenly bring a stage two (re: Kohlberg) society to stage five. However, the most important lesson for us was the realization that we could help develop an ethical awareness, but it had to be with specific concepts and behaviors, and preferably ones which already had some level of familiarity in that environment. Take the foundation and build upon it. In short, don't introduce new or dissonant concepts, but rather work on speeding up the evolutionary process of ethical development.
Finally, it must be mentioned that we passionately believe not only in the moral foundation of an ethical system, but also in the practicality of developing such a system. These concepts come from our beliefs as Baha'is, members of a world religion dedicated to the betterment of world civilization. Some quotations from the Baha'i writings will illustrate some of these points.
Therefore, we do not see ethics in business as some pie-in-the-sky naive and unrealistic goal. Rather, we see it as forming an essential base for the long-term viability of business in any country. So that instead of waiting until later to introduce ethics, as some Americans and others are doing, we feel it is important to lay the foundation now, even though it be a basic one.
Epilogue We left Bulgaria hoping we had made some lasting difference, but honestly doubting that we had. Therefore it was a pleasant surprise when a large envelope arrived from Sofia six months after the training program. One of the Bahais who helped organize the program sent a note and a copy of the Bulgarian Chamber of Commerces first attempt at creating a code of ethics. The note said the new code was a direct result of our training, for one of the members of the Chamber had been in our group and applied those lessons to a larger audience than we had anticipated.
Sometimes you just never know what effects come from a program, or even some behaviors. It just goes to show that morality and ethics are more contagious than we often realize.
Thomas A. and K. Patricia Cross. (1993) Classroom assessment techniques.
San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.