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Local executives discuss business ethics

Four Greater Binghamton executives shared their views on business ethics with Thomas Kelly’s MBA students during a panel discussion last week.

Kelly, professor of management and former vice president for external affairs, invited Jeffrey J. Coghlan of Wendcentral Corp., a major franchisee within Wendy’s; Kathy Fiacco, director of ethics and business conduct for Lockheed Martin Systems Integration of Owego; William R. Lewis, a financial consultant and former regional vice president of AXA Advisors; and Robert N. Nielsen Jr., a lawyer and chief of staff for state Sen. Thomas W. Libous, to speak about ethical decision-making in their industries and in their own


Kelly and his students posed questions to the panelists, who drew on their experiences and shared anecdotes and opinions, during the hour-long exchange. Topics ranged from executive compensation to the ways in which professional ethical standards have evolved.

One question focused on “tests” that business leaders use when making a decision. Kelly mentioned that Warren Buffett asks himself how he’d feel if the decision were reported on the front page of a newspaper.

Lewis said he has a “grandmother test.” “Would you make this recommendation to your mother or grandmother?” he asked. “If y

ou would, it’s probably sound advice for your client.”

Fiacco said Lockheed executives also use the “newspaper test.” “The thing I ask myself is, how will I feel at the end of the day?” she said.

Nielsen said it’s important to know what the law requires in a given situation. Beyond that, he’s a believer in the Golden Rule. “Ask yourself how you’d want to be treated,” he said.

Coghlan said he asks himself how he’d feel if his children knew about his decision.
A student asked the panelists what they do when dealing with someone who has different values.

Coghlan said he acknowledges the differences and tries to seek common ground. Without that common ground, he said, you sometimes must end the relationship.
“You have to talk about what matters,” Nielsen said, “and reach a compromise that everybody can live with.”

The panelists were asked how they balance investors’ short-term demands for profit with the long-term view that ethical decision-making usually requires.

“You always have to look at the long term,” said Fiacco, who noted that there are risks to cutting corners. “You can’t be shortsighted.” She said there’s pressure in her ind

ustry to be competitive, but companies can’t compromise their standards, either.

The panelists were also asked about corporate social responsibility and whether they see it as a passing fad or a long-term element of the business world.

“I don’t think it’s optional anymore,” said Lewis, who noted companies must do more than pay lip service to the idea of being good corporate citizens.

Coghlan said the concept of social responsibility raises important ethical questions. He’s proud of the Wendy’s record on food safety and package reduction, for example, but wonders about overregulation in his industry.

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Last Updated: 10/14/08