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You work for an NGO that certifies fair trade products and find out that one of your certified suppliers in China employs underage workers...
You are consulting for an NGO that is considering making a generic form of a patented AIDS drug in South Africa...
You are in final discussions with national government officials in Russia and have been asked to pay a "transaction" fee into a personal bank account...
If you were confronted with one of those situations, what would you do? Unfortunately, for many Columbia MBA students it's not a theoretical question. While everyone can expect to come across ethical dilemmas at some point in his or her career, those who work with cultures that are not their own are often faced with an added level of complication, layering on the cultural paradigms through which business—and therefore ethical decisions—get done. We all know the imperative of adapting to a culture's social folkways and mores, but when it comes to ethics, is there an absolute standard—one that applies to all people, at all places, at all times? Or should we be following the toast of Stephen Decatur, U.S. Navy commodore during the War of 1812: "Our country! In her intercourse with foreign nations, may she always be in the right; but right or wrong, our country"?
At the student panel "Ethical Dilemmas at Government Institutions or NGOs," organized by the Student Leadership and Ethics Board as part of Leadership and Ethics Month and moderated by Professor Stephan Meier, five students addressed this question and others, through personal experiences in ethical decision making from their work at NGOs and government agencies around the world. Their stories provided the fodder for lively debate among audience members. The Chazen Web Journal retells three of their stories (names have been changed to protect students' identities).