The Observer is a Student-run, daily print & online newspaper serving Notre Dame & Saint Mary's. Learn more about us.



Speaker tackles corporate ethics

Steve Kerins | Tuesday, September 19, 2006

A preponderance of corporate scandals have combined with the pressures of globalization on international companies to foster a renewed focus on ethics in the business community, a business ethics officer said Monday.

Nancy Thomas-Moore, Director of Ethics and Business Conduct for the Weyerhaeuser Corporation, spoke at the second lecture in this year’s Berges Lecture Series, which addresses issues of ethics in business. The lecture was entitled “What’s Hot in Corporate Ethics.”

Thomas-Moore outlined the recent factors that have caused executives worldwide to clamor for increased transparency and accountability in their businesses.

The federal government introduced corporate sentencing guidelines in 1991, which were “the first comprehensive set of self-policing guidelines for companies,” Thomas-Moore said.

The government amended the guidelines in 2004 following the wave of corporate scandals early in the decade.

“Even prior to Enron, there was some concern that the guidelines weren’t working as well as expected,” Thomas-Moore said.

The New York Stock Exchange’s new standards of corporate governance derived from high-profile corruption cases, she said. Additionally, “the Securities and Exchange Commission now requires corporations to have a code of ethics which is posted on their webpage,” Thomas-Moore said.

Perhaps the legal cornerstone of the movement for ethics in business was the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which set or enhanced existing standards of corporate governance and ethics in 2002.

Thomas-Moore said the issues companies face regarding business ethics are not unique in history but mirror similar questions that have arisen in the past, most notably after the Watergate scandal in the 1970s.

“Ethics have not changed, and I don’t think they ever will,” she said, but noted that specific concerns may differ by circumstance.

Thomas-Moore enumerated key issues that face ethics officers and businesses today. One set of issues targets companies working internationally.

“If a company does business in certain countries, [different ethical standards are] going to change their ethics program,” she said.

In France, for example, privacy laws prohibit the use of hotlines to report violations of a company’s code of ethics. Such hotlines are required by law in the United States.

“This is not a result of the regulations, really. This is a result of globalization,” Thomas-Moore said.

Many companies have also raised the profile of their ethics departments, increasing their emphasis on risk assessments and metrics.

“The bad news is that the ethics officer is not the most popular person in the company,” Thomas-Moore said, citing the role of the ethics department in calling unethical business practices into question.

Additionally, she said, corporations are turning to outside sources to evaluate their practices and codes of ethics, as well for assistance in implementing new technologies such as those involved in online training programs.

“If you’re interested in a consulting career, this is an area that’s growing like crazy,” she said.

Thomas-Moore also emphasized the importance of a code of ethics focused globally, continuously under review and in line with employee training programs.

In today’s workplace, “having a code of ethics is not enough,” she said. “Having the rules just doesn’t cut it.”

To illustrate her point, Thomas-Moore provided examples from her own company’s ethics training program. Weyerhaeuser is a large transnational corporation in the pulp and paper industry that employs more than 50,000 people worldwide.

The Berges Lecture Series is sponsored by Notre Dame’s Center for Ethics and Religious Values in Business and the Institute for Ethical Business Worldwide. The next lecture in the series will be entitled “No Smoke, No Mirrors. Straight Down the Middle,” and will take place Sept. 27.