Lighting the ethical path

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 12 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 12 February, 2012, 12:00am


For more than an hour, business students from Hong Kong University of Science and Technology fumbled their way around a park, ferry or marketplace in complete darkness, relying on instructions from a visually impaired guide.

The December visit to Dialogue in the Dark, a social enterprise in Mei Foo, was a rewarding experience for the students. Organised by a group of HKUST business majors, it was aimed at rousing the students' concern for people who are less privileged as part of a corporate social responsibility (CSR) project.

Since the global financial crisis of 2008, business schools have been putting more emphasis on ethics and CSR in their teaching. The crisis laid bare an array of questionable corporate practices, including failed leadership, unacknowledged conflicts of interest, insufficient accountability, a lack of transparency and excessive greed.

'Societies have bigger expectations of business schools since the financial tsunami,' says Professor Leonard Cheng Kwok-hon, dean of HKUST's business school. 'They want graduates with higher ethical standards.'

From September, the university's business students will take two courses, rather than one, centred on moral values - one focusing on personal ethics and the other on corporate social responsibility. Other universities are also stepping up such training. At Baptist University, business majors will be required to take a core course on the subject, and ethical concepts will be incorporated into core courses for majors in subjects ranging from marketing to accounting. Chinese University says its business curriculum is embedded with similar concepts.

Dialogue in the Dark helped the students experience first hand how a social enterprise - which applies business strategies to philanthropic goals - operates.

'Initially, I was scared about being in the dark, but the guide was so capable; his senses were so much sharper than ours,' says Kaylie Chan Ka-ki, a project organiser. 'Organising such an event was complicated, but we found out how Dialogue in the Dark tried to attract support. I realised how some people can be on a social mission while making a profit. It would be greatly satisfying if I could help people and make money at the same time in the future.'

Philip Poon Yuk-hong, a third-year economics major, says the trip made him realise there were many services that blind people could find helpful. 'We could provide more facilities for the blind, or produce films featuring predominantly sounds, or restaurant menus with Braille,' he says.

Business graduates could contribute to the growing number of social enterprises in Hong Kong by helping to improve their operational efficiency, upholding good business practices or even influencing government policies, says Stephen Cheung Yan-leung, dean of Baptist's business school. 'CSR is the key to building a harmonious society, and we should not rely on the government to do the job of building such a society,' Cheung says. 'Ideally, we should teach our students to be better people before they get rich.'

Business students have also been sent farther afield to experience how their subject can contribute to helping others who are worse off. Roy Lam Ka-wai, a second-year business major at Baptist, says he was impressed with a pilot micro-financing scheme in rural Sichuan after spending two weeks there last summer on a university service-learning project. He and another Baptist student joined counterparts from Chengdu's Southwest Financial University in visiting peasants as part of a research project aimed at making the scheme more attractive to potential borrowers.

While his fellow Hong Kong classmate found commuting between remote villages in the sweltering heat physically demanding, Lam took it all in his stride. He felt that the scheme, jointly run by a local company and the NGO Fu Ping Development Institute, was a viable solution to people in need. 'Often peasants don't want to take out bank loans because of high interest rates and the common requirement to mortgage their property,' Lam says.

He was inspired by the attitude of the scheme's employees: rather than aggressively touting their products, they carefully gauge each household's needs and ability. The vetting process is simple and efficient; small-scale loans are offered mainly to help people facing financial problems or those wanting to start a small business. Some well-off households had their requests turned down.

'It is an enterprise with a social conscience, different from greedy banks whose sole purpose is to sell as many products as possible, and who were responsible for the financial tsunami,' Lam says. 'It considers the ability of households to repay and offers flexible repayment terms. Its chairman told us that the company would not survive if they lent indiscriminately. It visits clients regularly to nurture their relationships.'

Lam wants to contribute to society when he graduates, and teaching is one option he has considered. 'Companies in Hong Kong are unlikely to support meaningful projects that are not profitable,' he says. 'As a teacher, I could instil positive values.'

As part of the initiative to raise awareness of ethics, some universities have roped in businessmen to alert students to potential problems in the workplace. Kee Chi-hing, a former managing director of Hewlett-Packard (HP) Hong Kong, guest lectures for a CSR marketing course at Baptist and an NGO marketing course at City University, has many experiences to share. Kee worked for the company for 20 years, 10 of which were spent on the mainland.

'People's ethical standards vary, but at my former company, we were not supposed to badmouth our competitors,' he says.

Many boundaries are blurred on the mainland, he says, one example being the common practice of offering kickbacks to secure a deal. 'The bribery law there is not as strict as Hong Kong's,' says Kee, who has been doing volunteer work since retiring in 2006. Avoiding conflicts of interest and handling confidential information are two of the issues he often discusses with his students.

He says independent thinking is necessary for students to exercise sound judgment when making ethical decisions, and wide exposure helps them look at things from various perspectives.

One case he often brings up is that of former HP chief executive Mark Hurd. Almost two years ago, Hurd, regarded as a capable leader, lost his job after he was found to have submitted inaccurate expense reports that concealed his personal relationship with a marketing consultant who had filed sexual harassment allegations against him. The expenses were a small sum to the multinational, but the incident hastened Hurd's exit. Views differed on whether the company had made the right decision by forcing him out, but there is no doubt about the importance of personal integrity wherever one works.

'Integrity is important; it is the basis of trust between a company and its staff and the public,' Kee says. 'With it, the cost of running a company is reduced. Ethics brings benefits to everyone.'