Is a company’s chief allegiance to its shareholders or should it also be held accountable by other stakeholders, including employees, the community, and the environment? Should ethics be defined by the net social value of consequences to actions, fundamental rights of individuals, social contracts, or predefined virtues? How important are values in an organization and, if they are important, how can they be defined and maintained? How “should” a company interact with NGOs that oppose it, especially when they’re “right?”
These are the questions we are wrestling with in our Ethics & Social Responsibility class. The discussions, led by professor Michael Yaziji, have been scintillating and heated–just what you’d expect from a debate in such a diverse environment! My favorite question for contemplation so far has been:
“You are the CEO of a pharma company with the option to save hundreds of thousands of lives. This option will necessarily come at significant, long-term shareholder expense. What do you do?”
After much clarification of the question and the assumptions, it was clear that there was no win-win situation. You either saved lives and lost money or didn’t and made money. There was much debate. Obviously everyone wanted to save the lives, but did we have the right? Or were we obliged to run the company in the best interests of the shareholders? Many student responses relied on passing the buck to the owners: put it up for a vote and comply with the result.
I don’t buy that, however. To me, this question of whether or not to save lives is similar to a question of whether or not to save money (Hear me out before you condemn me for that statement!). If you choose not to save money you are, effectively, losing money. If you choose not to save lives you are, effectively, killing. When I frame the question that way, my course of action is apparent: I will save the lives.
It distills down to the same question faced by Nazi officers: do I kill because I have been ordered to do so by my shareholders/fuhrer? Or do I adhere first to my own principles? I am a principled human first and a CEO after. I may be fired for my decision but what good is being CEO if you can’t live with yourself? My goal would be to communicate upfront the values that would drive my decision-making in such a situation–transparency and honesty with the shareholders. Hopefully that would help ensure that I work for a company with similar values.
It seems like a theoretical, academic question, except that it was part of a case discussion involving a pharma company and its marketing of AIDS drugs in South Africa. What are your thoughts on such a dilemma?