Students discuss ethical issues with industrial representatives

​On a sunny afternoon at Chalmers, students met representatives from industry to discuss ethics. Even though there are compulsory ethics lectures for every master’s program it is important to elucidate the industrial aspects Ethics is a hot topic at the moment and a common trend within industry is to tumble around the ethical standards to succeed. Can the financial goals be met and sustainable at the same time? How should employees act when faced with ethical dilemmas? Are there ethical policies in place? These were just some of the questions that were addressed during the afternoon.
The Seminar "Towards an industry with high ethical standards" was organized by Chalmers area of advance Energy the undergraduate- and master's education program together with the student organization, Chalmers Students for Sustainability with contributions from the corporate partners ABB and Astra Zeneca. The goal was to bring together students with industry representatives that work with ethical issues on a daily basis. For businesses, ethics is the important issue nowadays.

Almost every company talks about ethics and the issue is more important now than ever. Strong laws on corruption has been implemented within the EU, consumers demand sustainable products, and security issues for employees have pushed companies to review their policies. Anders S. Carlsson, Local Sales and Marketing Manager for ABB points out that there is no conflict between profitability and sustainable behavior. It may even be that it is more profitable to think about sustainability in the long run.
To draw the line
ABB develops power grids and delivers the entire value chain from power generation to transmission and distribution of power around the world. In that line of work the company faces challenges both in terms of security, but also corruption. To build a competitive network, companies like ABB need to get into new markets where corruption is a widespread phenomenon and bribes are almost necessary. "No, ABB is not a" super duper "company”, says Anders, but the company has made difficult decisions to move in the right direction. One example is the decision to withdraw from an important market like Azerbaijan in 2010. In contrast to other companies that had to pay high penalties for their actions and had to face damages in reputation. It takes time and money to get out of that situation and win back customers trust.
Show action not just words
Johan Widestrand, Compliance Director  Astra Zeneca, confirms what Anders previously mentioned. Bribes to doctors was common in the past, but laws have been tightened during recent years.
- In the past, doctors could be invited on trips and dinners. This has changed completely. Now, employees are almost annoyed that Astra Zeneca cannot even give out a pen for free anymore, says Johan.
ABB and Astra Zeneca have developed policies, processes and guidelines to strengthen the culture and values within the company to do the right thing. But why is that so important?
Authorities and countries are very serious regarding companies and individuals trying to find easy ways to earn money. Therefore, worldwide laws and rules has been tightened, and the penalties are harsher. John mention the example of Volkswagen, where the carmaker cheated with emission data. In Volkswagen's case sales collapsed and trust in them has never been as low. In addition, high fines and compensation for affected customers worldwide are waiting. Thisexamplifies that actions are as important as words, and that the entire organization knows what's right and wrong.

Astra Zeneca is a research-driven pharmaceutical company that conducts controversial research on stem cells. Future scenarios such as choosing eye color for the unborn child or the ability to opt out diseases is something that is discussed extensively. To meet the critics, the company needs to be transparent and show that everything is done according to laws and regulations. - Tests must approve all steps, everything must be documented and published. This way, we have nothing to hide, says Johan.
Is ethics just a showcase for good PR?
Joakim Sandberg, researcher in moral philosophy, political philosophy and economics at the University of Gothenburg, sees the whole issue in a different way. Companies use ethics as part of their PR strategy, to exemplify some of the good work they do to deliberately conceal other activities. A showcase to shift focus and feed the media with what the company wants. We would like to think that consumers choose products with care but we rarely know whether this is true or not. This way the companies put responsibility on the customers. But is it reasonable for them to know what is sustainable or ethically correct? Do customers have the right skills to make these choices? It is unreasonable to demand this, says Joakim.
He also addresses the ethical aspect of Business 2 Business, where costs is usually the most important aspect. An example of this is the procurement process for authorities for purchase of products and services; focus lies only on pricing.

One question that remains is what students, that are about to enter the labor market, can do? Shaping the right culture and values for a company cannot be achieved by one person, it requires the entire organization. Some of the students in the audience believe that the initiative should come from the management down to the rest of the organization as culture is developed by the leadership. Leaders should act as role models and guide employees. Another aspect is to allow employees to raise their hand and flag when boundaries of what is right or wrong is unclear. According to the company representatives  whistleblowers are welcome and  students should not be afraid to ask and address things that fall within the gray zone - ethically correct or not. If you are unsure, ask someone in charge. It was one of the most important and valuable advice to the students that ended this seminar. The good work does not end here it continues out in the field and in the classrooms.

Text: Martina Mofidi 

Published: Wed 24 May 2017. Modified: Wed 23 May 2018