Peterson and Panel Address Ethics Concerns at Leadership Forum

A capacity crowd gathered at the Historic Academy of Medicine Tuesday morning to hear President G.P. “Bud” Peterson discuss the relationship between ethics and organizational effectiveness. 

Peterson was joined by three panelists — Steve Salbu, the Cecil B. Day Chair in Business Ethics at the Scheller College of Business; Aisha Oliver-Staley, interim vice president for Ethics, Compliance and Legal Affairs; and Sonia Alvarez-Robinson, executive director for Georgia Tech Strategic Consulting — for the forum titled Ethical Leadership: A Shared Commitment.

In his opening remarks, Peterson said, “We have had some issues. It’s been a tough six months for Georgia Tech, and we’re trying to address those issues.” 

Tech participates in the University System of Georgia’s Ethics Awareness Week every year, but this year’s event was especially important and meaningful. Peterson began by acknowledging the current climate on campus. 

During his 50-minute address, Peterson gave an overview of recent changes made to the Institute’s organizational structure intended to provide additional safeguards and better align business processes. Other changes include increased training for leadership and enhanced communication during Ethics Awareness Week next week, planned for Nov. 11-17.

The president stressed the need to make an ethical culture a priority throughout the Institute.

“With the issues that we’ve had, we have lost some of the confidence of the public at large. It is important that as a public institution we try to regain that,” he said.  

When Peterson opened the floor for questions, the first question was: Who will be responsible for making sure that what happened won’t happen again?

“Ultimately, I’m responsible,” Peterson said. “Who else is responsible? The leadership and everybody at Georgia Tech. All of us are responsible.”

During the panel discussion, Salbu, Oliver-Staley, and Alvarez-Robinson offered their perspective for creating and sustaining an ethical culture.

Alvarez-Robinson credited the Staff Council and the College of Engineering’s Dean’s Office for increasing staff engagement and improving the staff experience throughout the Institute.

“When I think about leadership, there are those who are designated leaders, but then there are those who lead, who really have followership, who have built social capital, who have deposited sufficient funds into the bank of good will that people will work with them in moving an agenda forward," she said. "We have a tremendous opportunity to continue this journey of influencing a healthy, positive, cohesive, collaborative community culture here.”

“One of our ethics week values is community. And it dovetails really well with one of the USG’s values, which is respect," Oliver-Staley said. "Respect says that I listen to what my manager says, because I trust we've created a community. I trust that my manager is only acting in my best interest and in the best interest of the community."

When respect is lost, she continued, trust also goes away, leading to a rise in allegations of ethical misconduct. “But if we start treating each other with respect, that respect will go a long way toward building an ethical culture as employees together,” Oliver-Staley said.

Salbu suggested looking at leadership first.

“From the organization standpoint, one of the causes of unethical behavior is when there is a culture of high fear. So, ask yourself about the leaders who are leading you and ask yourself, ‘are they leading me by fear, or are they leading me by inspiring me?’”

He cited Wells Fargo, where thousands of employees were fired for creating accounts without the customers’ authorization, as an example where employees were afraid of losing their jobs, so they gave in to pressure and participated in unethical behavior. He said employees must maintain the courage of their convictions.

“We have to keep our own critical eyes on things. We have to have courage in meetings — even when the boss is there — to every extent that we can to say, I’m sorry, I object, this is wrong, and here’s why I think it's wrong. I think those are some of the individual responsibilities we have,” he said.

Employees seem to be taking their ethical responsibility seriously, based on the Institute’s increase in reports to the EthicsPoint hotline.

“In some ways, it’s good and bad that the number has gone up,” Peterson said. “It’s bad because we have a lot of issues to deal with. It’s good that people are comfortable reporting things that they are concerned about. And thanks to those of you that have called in and made a report, it is a positive thing that people feel comfortable reporting things that they're concerned about.”

During the question-and-answer session with Peterson, an attendee expressed concern about employee morale, and said that some employees feel like they need to double-check or get approval before doing their jobs.

Peterson said that he and campus leadership recognize that there is some anxiety on campus.

“Let me just say that we haven't had people that have lost their jobs because they made bad decisions. We’ve had people that have lost their jobs because they’ve done things wrong. People aren’t going to lose their jobs because they make a mistake.”

Peterson said he believes that while this has been a difficult few months, he still thinks that people are proud to work at Georgia Tech.

“I want to get back to the point where you can be as proud as you were six or eight months ago,” he said. “I am committed. We will get there. I promise you that.”

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