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How ethical workplaces help foster ethical behavior

At the Olafson Ethics Symposium, Kelly Caruso calls for making sure your values and your employer’s values line up 

Kelly Caruso, a UND alum, former senior executive at Target Corp. and current member of the UND Alumni Association & Foundation board, delivers the Olafson Ethics Symposium’s keynote speech at the Nistler College of Business & Public Administration on Nov. 16. Photo by Tom Dennis/UND Today.

Choosing the harder right over the easier wrong: that’s ethics in a nutshell, suggested this year’s keynote speaker at the Olafson Ethics Symposium at UND.

So, how can students best ensure that when the time for such decision-making comes, they’ll make the ethical – even if more difficult – choice?

Kelly Caruso, a UND alum and veteran of senior leadership positions at Target Corp. and elsewhere, answered that question over the course of her speech. From her suggestions, students learned that if they strive to behave ethically and to work for organizations whose ethics align with their own, they’ll be more likely to be supported when the time for difficult decisions comes.

And that’s important, because the ethical choice in many situations is one that will cost the organization money.

On Nov. 16, Caruso spoke in front of about 200 people in the Barry Auditorium at the Nistler College of Business and Public Administration at UND. Throughout her talk, which was titled “The Harmony of Ethics, Values and Happiness,” Caruso illustrated her points by citing examples from her own career. That career has included 25 years of experience in retail, eCommerce, supply chain, technology and design.

“When there is an abundance of overlap in ethics, values and the law between the company you’re working for and you personally – when your values overlap quite a bit with your company’s – it feels really good,” she said.

“You can show up every single day as your best self, your most authentic self. And conversely, when there isn’t that overlap – when your values are different than the company’s principles – it’s not good. It’s uncomfortable.

“I’ve been there,” she said. “You are checking some part of yourself at the door. And that makes it incredibly hard for you to show up and be yourself.”

During her keynote speech at the Olafson Ethics Symposium, Kelly Caruso used her own life experiences to illustrate the points she was making about ethics. Photo by Tom Dennis/UND Today.

The case of the counterfeit cotton

To show this, Caruso cited two examples from her time as a senior leader at Target. Target is a values-based company at which Caruso felt comfortable, thanks to the kind of healthy overlap described above. And in the first of her examples – the “Egyptian cotton” incident – that proved extremely important.

At the time, Caruso led Target’s “sourcing organization,” the 1,200-employee department that works with vendors around the world to deliver Target-branded products to stores. “I come in one Wednesday, and I get a call,” she said.

“A whistleblower gave us the heads up that the Egyptian cotton in the Egyptian-cotton sheets we were selling was not Egyptian cotton at all. …

“This was a big deal. A huge deal,” she said. “We’d been selling these sheets for probably five years, we had every plan to continue selling them, we were heading into ‘Back to College’ season – a huge time to sell sheets – and the cotton’s not Egyptian cotton.”

What happened next had much to do with Target’s organizational culture, because the company essentially supported Caruso in her own efforts to do the right thing. That meant operating with transparency (after telling her own boss and other senior leaders, Caruso immediately convened a panel of in-house experts and other problem-solvers), operating with honesty and trying at all times to put customers first.

LiveMint.com, the online version of the business publication Mint, summarized Target’s response in this way: “After discovering problems with Welspun sheets, Target quickly decided to terminate its entire relationship with the company, citing ‘the trust that our guests place in us.’ It also opted to offer refunds to customers who’d purchased them – even if they’d been sleeping on them for years.”

Said Caruso, “When you find yourself in these situations, work the problem; be honest; be transparent; bring in experts, and learn what you can from them. And by all means, especially if you are working for a company that is consumer-facing, understand that they (the consumers) are at the heart of your decision-making.”

Which almost certainly means that in order to resolve any ethical situation, “it will cost you money. … That’s just the reality, but it’s also how you will win back the trust of your customers.”

For her second example, Caruso described a time when she was in northern China to conduct an unannounced spot-check of an apparel factory. “As we walk into the factory, it’s summer, a woman is at a sewing machine – and there’s a child sitting next to her, sorting some clothing remnants into a basket.”

That’s child labor, Caruso though at first, and she was fully prepared to cut the factory out of Target’s “matrix” or supply chain. But further investigation revealed that the woman’s child care had fallen through for the day, so she simply had brought her daughter to work – and, more importantly, that the daughter was playing, not working.

“So here’s what we did,” Caruso said. “We did not take the factory off the matrix. Instead, we put them on probation for a long time.

“Then we renegotiated our prices for what we were paying them – and we paid more. We paid more so that the extra profit could go to put a daycare on site, so that when a worker’s child care fell apart and they needed emergency child care, they could bring their daughter or son with them,” and that youngster would have a place to go.

At the Olafson Ethics Symposium, Amy Henley (left), dean of the Nistler College of Business & Public Administration at UND, talked with Kelly Caruso, the featured speaker, after Caruso had finished her speech. Photo by Tom Dennis/UND Today.

When values don’t match

Don’t misunderstand: Not every corporate culture will line up so cleanly with a employee’s values. To illustrate, Caruso cited an example from her just-out-of-college work at a different company – one that paid well and offered great perks, but seemed to put a premium on youth, appearance and homogeneity among its workers.

At one point, Caruso’s manager at that company screamed at her, insulted her, reviled her marketing skills and claimed she’d “never succeed,” Caruso said.

“I go home that night, and I’m devastated,” Caruso continued.

“Not because a guy yelled at me, but because of the level of disrespect that was going on, the level of exclusionary practices, the level where I work for a company where it matters more what you look like than what you’re actually producing.”

At that moment, Caruso knew she couldn’t stay – “because he’s right,” she remembers thinking.

“In this very toxic culture, I won’t succeed. I won’t be successful. And that means I have to leave.”

Which she did.

Happiness, Caruso suggested, stems from a formula described by Arthur Brooks, author and Harvard professor. In its simplest form, she said, “it’s about the friends and family we surround ourselves with; it’s about doing work that we find meaningful, that gets us excited, that fuels our passion; and it’s about having a system of faith or values that guide your decision-making.

“And I can get on board with that,” she continued.

In other words, try to live – and work – in accordance with your values, she suggested: “Work that you love – and that speaks to you and your passions, and the things that matter to you – combined with your set of values … if you can figure that out, if you can figure out a way to make money doing that, there is a lot of joy and harmony that can come your way.”

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The purpose of the Olafson Ethics Symposium is to provide a platform for students and the business community to explore the importance of both personal and professional ethics, the website of UND’s Nistler College of Business and Public Administration notes. The annual event is funded through the support of UND Alumnus Robert Olafson and his dedication to ethical business practices and the University of North Dakota. Additional funding support has also been provided by SEI Investments Company.