Honor Bound

We really have to pay attention to the culture that we set for the students--not just the code itself, but the way it's communicated and reinforced.

—Diana Robertson, Associate Professor of Organization and Management

Honor Bound
Academic integrity and red tape

"We really have to pay attention to the culture that we set for the students--not just the code itself, but the way it's communicated and reinforced."
Diana Robertson, Associate Professor of Organization and Management

"Let's make the honor code and see if people want to buy into it. If they don't, maybe Emory is not the right place for them."
Thomas D. Lancaster, Associate Professor of Political Science and Chair of German Studies

Perception vs. reality
Is dishonesty rampant on the Emory campus?

When faculty cheat
What happens with a faculty member falsifies data, plagiarizes, or otherwise compromises the integrity of his or her research?

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Robertson specializes in business ethics, social responsibility, and corporate ethics initiatives. She teaches graduate and undergraduate business courses on ethics.

Academic Exchange: Are students’ ethics already formed before they come to Emory?

Diana Robertson:
There is research that suggests people have a set of ethics by the time they’re eighteen; however, there is also research that shows that the organization itself has a great deal of influence on how people behave. I’ve done research with sales people and looked at whether the organizational compensation system makes a difference in terms of ethical behavior. The answer is yes, there are a number of factors that do make a difference. You and I might come to a school and our ethics are already formed, and you might be a wonderful person who would never cheat, and I might be a terrible person who would cheat all the time, but we’re still going to be at least somewhat influenced by the environment. So I feel very strongly that as a school we have an obligation to make that environment as conducive to academic honesty as possible. We can’t just say, oh well, we admitted these students—maybe some of them are unethical so let’s just give up on them. And there’s plenty of evidence to support that we really have to pay attention to the culture that we set for the students—not just the code itself, but the way it’s communicated and reinforced. There are many things that we have to do in order to give an ethics code teeth to make it actually work.

AE: Do you think your course on ethics makes your students more ethical people?

DR: This is such a tough question. It’s really yes and no. The objective of the course is to increase awareness of ethical issues, and to try to get students to recognize the ethical issues around them. I do a great deal of discussion of day-to-day behavior. How you treat your colleagues or your secretary is as important as whether you report things on financial statements that you shouldn’t. I know that’s a legal issue too, but I’m trying to impress upon the students that ethics isn’t just big issues or disasters. We discuss what constitutes an ethical issue; we practice talking about issues, and we provide frameworks for analyzing ethical issues. What I hope I can do is help students make better ethical decisions, surely better informed decisions. So, making better decisions? Yes. Making a more ethical person? Probably not. I can’t say my objective in the classroom is to make better people, but in fact I hope they are going to make better decisions, which is part of what makes them better people. I can’t take responsibility for students’ ethics and yet I am in a sense trying to improve them. Certainly there’s an idealistic element to what I’m doing. I’m trying to put out to them: these are the ideals, this is the way you ought to behave. There are professional standards and principles, and we should be following those.

AE: Have you used recent media coverage of corporate scandals to talk about issues of professional responsibility in your classes?

DR: I have. Last spring one student in my MBA class worked at Andersen and another worked at Ernst and Young. They talked about how ethics had become such a focus at their firms that all anyone could talk about was ethics. Everything they do is under such scrutiny—not just externally but internally—that the climate has changed.

AE: How will these recent scandals influence business in the future?

DR: They have a positive effect in the sense that companies are going to be much more careful about what they’re doing. There are companies that are working very hard to maintain their image and reputation as ethical companies, and there’s considerable pressure to do so. I think it’s positive in those respects. The negative effects have been a change in the public’s view of business and heightened cynicism about what business is all about. We’re in a critical period because the way that these situations are handled legally is going to have tremendous impact on future business. Right now we don’t know what the outcomes or sentences will be, and that’s going to make a big difference, depending on whether there seems to be just a slap on the wrist or if there is true punishment. The punishments will send a message about what executives can and can’t get away with. The other thing that we don’t know is if this is the tip of the iceberg. Are these scandals just isolated instances, or will we see more and more? The coming months and years will answer that question.