“This country is run on epidemics, where you been? Price fixing, crooked TV shows, inflated expense accounts. How many honest men you know?” -- Hud Bannon.
I help young professionals learn about business and leadership at a private university. We’re committed to growing a generation of entrepreneurs that are both savvy and ethical. It’s a challenge to teach business ethics in the protected environment of academia without the subject becoming purely theoretical.
You don’t flex your ethical muscles by talking about it in a classroom.
We have to be faced with real experiences that have consequences before we know what we’re made of. We are tested in the moment, and no amount of classroom time can prepare you for how you may respond to an ethically questionable situation.
Here are the five movies I recommend to my students, not so much as guides on ethical behavior, but rather movies that portray a person’s struggles and choices with ethical dilemmas. At the top of the list you have “Citizen Kane,” “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Office Space.”
Those three have been written so much about that there’s no need to go into them again. However, I dug a little deeper to come up with five more for your viewing pleasure:
“Hud“ (1963) — Paul Newman stars as a young rancher desperate to get away from the business of ranching and out from under his father’s thumb. The movie explores the relationship between father and son, their generational differences and how those differences impact their perspectives on an ethical challenge.
We watch them struggle through the eyes of the young nephew, also a ranch hand, who is torn between the two perspectives. Twentysomethings entering the work force often find themselves in the nephew’s role: watching senior people in the company duke it out over an ethical dilemma and having to pick sides.
“Glengarry Glen Ross” (1992) — The movie is already a legend thanks to Alec Baldwin’s seven-minute speech on the “ABCs of Sales,” and so most people know he’s on a mission of mercy from Mitch & Murray.
I show this scene in all of my business classes and assign this article from Cracked Magazine to support it. There’s something so deeply true about the clip you could build an MBA program around it. At the end of the day, even in conscious capitalism, the goal is to get them to sign on the line that is dotted.
“Up in the Air” (2009) — In January 2009 I wrote a screenplay about a man who fired people for a living and then was fired himself. It sets him off on a road trip from NYC to New Orleans, to Lubbock, to the Sonora desert, and ultimately to San Diego. It was a love letter to automobiles, the road trip and the individual versus team accountability. Then I saw “Up in the Air” with George Clooney, and it was close enough to what I was going for that I put the script in an old sock drawer.
“Air” brilliantly explores the personal costs of a corporate career. You will travel, you will sacrifice, you will eventually lose your job and then you will be stuck with a singular question -- was it worth it.
“Risky Business” (1983) — My favorite part of the movie is the auction at the end. It’s the ultimate business lesson in the difference between an aspirin and a vitamin. Joel (Tom Cruise) wants to get into an Ivy League school, but he needs his mom’s egg to pay for it, and it costs him. “In a sluggish economy, never fuck with another man’s livelihood.”
Joel learns the hard way that sometimes when you say, “What the f***” you have to pay the price. There are rules, like Joel’s application process into an Ivy League school, and then there are the ethics within a business. Even the underground economy has rules and ethics.
The Devil Wears Prada: *2006) — I wish every Millennial in my class would repeatedly watch this modern classic. Meryl Streep’s Miranda Priestly teaches us the important business lesson that no matter what career path we take, no matter what industry we step into, there are thousands of professionals who already devoted their lives to the making and selling of that product and/or service.
There’s a moment when Priestly confronts her clueless assistant on the deeper realities at play: Miranda Priestly:
‘This… stuff’? Oh. Okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select… I don’t know… that lumpy blue sweater, for instance because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns.
And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent… wasn’t it who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin.
However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs, and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.”