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Achilles Armenakis

Director of the Center of Ethical Organizational Cultures
College of Business

Achilles Armenakis is Auburn University's James T. Pursell Sr. Eminent Scholar in Ethics and director of the Center of Ethical Organizational Cultures in the College of Business. The center, established in 2008, works with companies to assess their business practices and develop protocols for maintaining ethical management practices. Armenakis also brings in Distinguished Fellows in Management Ethics as guest speakers to illustrate the importance of proper workplace behavior. HealthSouth CEO Jay Grinney (pictured below) addressed Auburn MBA students Aug. 19, and HealthSouth chief compliance officer Cleaster "Cle" Ewing will speak Aug. 26. They are discussing business ethics and how HealthSouth handled a much-publicized financial crisis. Later in the semester, Armenakis will host James Sumner, executive director of the Alabama Ethics Commission. Previous Distinguished Fellows have included Jeffrey Wigand, who exposed tobacco companies' use of nicotine to make users addicted; Roger Boisjoly of Morton Thiokol, who warned about the O-ring problems before the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion in 1986; and Roy Vagelos, retired CEO of Merck pharmaceutical company, who wrote the book, "The Moral Corporation."

1. What are your goals for the Center for Ethical Organizational Cultures?

We are interested in learning more about ethical and unethical behavior and helping individuals and organizations understand the behavior. We know this will help individuals and organizations to be more ethical.

Our research program is designed around two major directions. One is, we help organizational leaders diagnose organizational cultures. This is typically not a common practice in organizations because leaders generally focus on readily visible operational issues. This is sometimes referred to as "greasing the squeakiest wheel." We think it is important that leaders ask questions and seek answers that will identify issues before a crisis develops. Thus, periodic organizational diagnoses are healthy analyses that should be conducted. We have developed a methodology to assess organizational cultures and have plans to use the methodology to assist any organization in diagnosing its organizational culture. Next, after conducting an organizational diagnosis, if it is necessary, then we can help in planning and implementing organizational culture change.

We have several research projects under way that investigate the root causes of ethical and unethical behavior.

2. Do you believe certain industries are more vulnerable to ethical lapses?

I don't believe certain industries are more vulnerable to ethical lapses. An organizational culture is created by the top executive and cascades throughout the organization. The underlying assumptions of the top executive, and other decision makers, determine the organizational practices, and hence the culture. Other principals throughout the organization observe the behaviors and interpret the assumptions. Sometimes individuals perpetuate unethical practices and organizational cultures by behaving in accordance with the unethical underlying assumptions. When employees observe unethical behavior they are hesitant to report it because they fear retaliation and/or they conclude it would not do any good. It's the people who establish and maintain ethical cultures (or unethical cultures), regardless of industry. An organizational diagnosis can identify unethical and ethical behavior.

3. Tell us a little more about the Distinguished Fellow in Management Ethics Program.

The Distinguished Fellows Program is designed to expose our students and faculty to individuals who have distinguished themselves in acting in ways that serve as role models for us to recognize, appreciate and imitate. These individuals present the context of their situations and how they acted. It is our intent to provide specific cases to our students so that they can learn from these distinguished individuals. The complete list of speakers is on the Ethics Center website. In 2011 we are hosting HealthSouth CEO Jay Grinney and chief compliance officer Cleaster Ewing. We have prepared a lengthy document that describes the HealthSouth case from 1984 to 2005. It describes the unethical practices by many people as well as the prison sentences of numerous people. Clearly, this case describes an unethical organizational culture.

4. What are the major ethical challenges facing organizational leaders today?  How have they responded?

The ethical challenge facing organizational leaders, as well as politicians, is to do what is right. This sounds so simple but for some it is not, obviously. We expose our students to our research as well as to our Distinguished Fellows in Management Ethics. We take the research findings and use them as course material in virtually all of our courses, not just the ethics course. Our students get ethics content in many courses in each of the College of Business departments. The speakers bring their experiences in and provide real life situations and challenge the students to internalize their experiences. So, we are attempting to influence them as college students to how difficult it can be to act ethically in an unethical culture. We try to give them the information we think they need to appreciate ethical cultures and speak out when employed in organizations with unethical cultures.

5. Since joining the faculty nearly four decades ago, what would you say has changed most (and what has stayed the same) about the university and the Auburn community?

A lot has changed since I joined the faculty at Auburn. Most of it, however, has been related to growth and beautification of the city and campus. The culture of Auburn University has not changed that much. The people are still just as focused on honesty and success as they always have been. I continue to enjoy my relationship with Auburn University.

To read more about HealthSouth CEO Jay Grinney and chief compliance officer Cleaster "Cle" Ewing addressing Auburn students, go to this link.

Aug. 22, 2011