WRITTEN BY MARK HOUSER
Some say ethics is merely a high-minded abstraction, something that needs to be put aside when reality strikes. At Robert Morris University, we believe ethics is not the opposite of pragmatism, but is instead the keystone of a successful career. That’s what we teach our students. But of course, we are following a good role model.
“I am not ignorant that many people employ themselves in defaming men whom they do not know and measures which they do not understand. To such illiberal characters … the best answer is to act well.” --Robert Morris
For Robert Morris, ethics was fundamental. The wealthy Philadelphia merchant, congressman, and superintendent of finance for the American government during the Revolutionary War often used his own credit to ensure that troops were armed, fed, and paid. His enemies accused him of war profiteering, so Morris opened the government’s books to the public and appeared before Congress to account for every penny. Fully exonerated, Morris became one of Pennsylvania’s first senators. He even handed the keys to his own mansion in Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital, over to his good friend, President George Washington, so the first chief executive could have the best house in town.
At the height of the Gilded Age a century ago, Judge Elbert Gary, chairman of United States Steel, declared that his company would be held to a higher standard. His “Gary Principles” were the first code of business ethics adopted by an American corporation.
“If we succeed in business, we must do so on principles that are honest, fair, lawful, and just.” –Judge Elbert Gary
In her address to the 2009 graduate commencement ceremony, Dr. Susan M. Kapusta ’81, US Steel’s general manager for community affairs and president of the corporation’s foundation, said the legacy of the “Gary Principles” continues. For Kapusta and the other 143 RMU alumni who work at U.S. Steel, their education also has helped them develop a sense of propriety. “At this university, the concept of ethics is embedded in the business curriculum,” she told the graduates. “There is a discussion of ethics in every course. The faculty sets an example for professional focus that points the way to creating ethical professional leaders.”
After more than two decades climbing the ladder, Rande Somma ’73 was named president of North American operations for a Fortune 100 Detroit auto parts supplier, a $17billion operation. He called a meeting, and told the staff their first action would be to write down a list of things they would not do to succeed. “When you firewall illegitimate means of reaching an end, you now place 100 percent of the burden on your competence and skill and your talent, and the kind of organizational culture you create, the kind of people you surround yourself with, how you approach the business,” he says. “It changes everything.”
Pressure from Wall Street makes it challenging to stay committed to ethical behavior, says Somma, now a private industry consultant and vice chairman of Tower Automotive. But it’s imperative, he believes. So he established the Rande and Georgia Somma Integrity First Scholarships, $2,500 awards given annually to the four RMU business students who write the best essays analyzing moral or ethical issues in a businesscase study.
“When people start hearing me talk about being ethical and integrity being critical when it comes to being a legitimately competent leader, people start to think that I’m some sort of prophet of righteousness. And they want to know, `Doesn’t the profitability matter?’ Yes, but that’s why I’m doing it this way. Profitability matters, but over the long term also,” he says. “Performance matters, but the authenticity of performance matters more.”
Robert Morris University's Rande and Georgia Somma Integrity First Scholarships
Awarded to four undergraduate business students each year for outstanding essays on a question of ethical behavior in business.
This year's winners were Renea Cassidy, Christopher Kusneriuk, Nicole Mocik, and Lauren Rodgers. They were asked to write about a fictional Internet firm, Galaxywire.net, and whether it has a moral obligation not to outsource operations to India.
To read one of the winning essays, click here.
The Gary Principles
Judge Elbert Gary, the chairman of U.S. Steel a century ago, espoused the following list of principles, known as the first code of business ethics to be adopted by an American company.
• I believe that when a thing is right, it will ultimately and permanently succeed.
• The highest rewards come from honest and proper practice. Bad results come in the long run from selfish, unfair and dishonest conduct.
• I believe in competition, that the race should be won by the swiftest, and that success should come to him who is most earnest and active and persevering.
• I believe that no industry can permanently succeed that does not treat its employees equitably and humanely.
• I believe thoroughly in publicity. The surest and wisest of all regulation is public opinion.
• If we are to succeed in business, we must do it on principles that are honest, fair, lawful and just.
• We must put and keep ourselves on a platform so fair, so high, so reasonable, that we will attract the attention and invite and secure the approval of all who know what we are doing.
• We do not advocate combinations or agreements in restraint of trade, nor action of any kind which is opposed to the laws or to the public welfare.
• We must never forget that our rights and interests are and should be subservient to the public welfare, that the rights and interests of the individual must always give way to those of the public.
Alumna Susan Kapusta, Ph.D., speaks at the Robert Morris University 2009 commencement ceremony