Q&A | The Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics

Dale Griffin

With the announcement of a new $7.5 million partnership created to fund the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics at the Sauder School of Business, centre interim director Professor Dale Griffin discusses the current state of ethics in business, the goals of the centre and the role it will play at the school.

What will business ethics research look like at the centre?

The subject of business ethics is actually remarkably diverse.  There are many ways to approach the subject from the individual perspective – how individuals learn, develop and apply values in corporate cultures – to the corporate level – how whole organizations develop positive or negative values cultures.

Ethical concerns arise at all levels and really fascinating areas of research can be found. At this point, we are thinking of what themes best fit the centre’s goals. An example of a theme that could bring a lot of value to the school and the broader business community would be the strategic value of corporate social responsibility. Another is the examination of individual moral and ethical principles, and their application in business. Another very interesting area is the investigation of the business case for corporations that create shared social value.

In the end, programming and curriculum at the centre will touch on many different themes, but the research approach will be focused on the core interest of the professor and head of the centre, who is to be recruited.

How will the centre’s work influence the student experience at the school?

In practical terms, a major part of the centre’s work will focus on the development of course content across all of our programs from undergraduate and graduate to executive education. It will provide the intellectual leadership to ensure our students are receiving the perspectives they need to think critically about ethical challenges and to build responsible organizations dedicated to creating value for civil society.

However, beyond formal curriculum development, our students will benefit from an increased level of sophistication across our faculty in the area of business ethics. The centre will influence the culture of ideas at the school, which will affect the learning environment on a broad and fundamental level. 

Why do you think this centre is necessary?

Well, to quote Peter Dhillon, there have not been many formal and measurable improvements in the ethical standards of business since the 2008 international financial crisis, as is evident from the continuing issues in many sectors of business. There’s still conflict of interest, there’s still short term-ism, there’s still apparently irrational risk-taking. Each of these has consequences for the whole of society. But there isn’t a broad consensus on how the world of business needs to change in order to avoid future crises. 

With this support from Peter Dhillon, we can be a force in developing the intellectual platform for guiding changes in corporate governance, regulation, and ethical practices, or more generally in business strategy and leadership principles that have the potential to prevent disasters and can help build social value. The ultimate goals are to create the ethical frameworks and strategies that businesses and public organizations need, and to train a new generation of business students, and thus help move towards a better world of business.

Do you think there is an appetite for increasing the role of ethics in business?

There’s certainly controversy and conversation about the explicit role of ethics and whether the market-based system has the capacity to solve problems through intrinsic checks and balances versus more extensive regulation. Although thoughtful people differ on these issues, you won’t find prominent and successful businesspeople that think, personally or at a corporate level, that ethics aren’t important.  That’s just not the conversation.

The message I hear from organizations recruiting from Sauder is that they are looking for young leaders who have thought about ethics, thought about their values, thought about their responsibilities to society, and are very clear in their guiding standards.

The will and desire to be ethical and give back is there, but it’s not something that is typically pursued formally with the same level of sophistication as other areas of business. Certainly not if you compare it against the tools we’ve developed in areas like finance or human resources. Each area of business has become increasingly sophisticated, increasingly efficient, but that same attention and focus hasn’t come to the ethical side. 

So the real challenge is to link the highly complex tools of finance and business strategy and decision-making with the frameworks and models of ethics.  We need the application of ethics in business to be just as rigorous—and respected—as any other aspect of business.

Why is now the right time to establish a centre for business ethics at the Sauder School of Business?

The timing for the creation of the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics is ideal. It will help inform and provide momentum to the large number of activities at the Sauder School that are already working independently to promote a values-driven approach to business.

Sauder programs promoting business as a tool for social good are widespread and pursued with enthusiasm, including international experience programs that enable students to travel to the developing world to help entrepreneurs build socially valuable enterprises. This theme is evident in the work of Sauder’s Centre for Social Innovation and Impact Investing, and in our Ch’nook program, which promotes business education as a tool to help strengthen Aboriginal communities.

There is also increasing momentum in our research environment focused on social issues in business and management.  We are conducting groundbreaking work looking at how business leadership can be improved through greater participation of women and people of diverse backgrounds. Our faculty are also investigating green funds and ethical investments, corporate governance, corporate social responsibility, and the integration of business ethics into decision-making, mergers, risk management, trading and organizational behaviour.

Our students are being encouraged and engaged to think of their values and the role those values play in business and society, beginning the moment they enter the Sauder School.  This is being done from many directions, and is woven into the curriculum they study and the orientation and activities that integrate them into the culture and community at the school.

Our goal is that the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics will help build on this momentum with new ideas and resources and help give it a greater sense of direction and shape.