UW News

March 30, 2006

New class blends social welfare, employee relations and business ethics issues

Students who want to know what employers should do for their employees from both economic and moral perspectives will have the chance to learn from some of the region’s most respected employers this quarter in a new class co-taught through the UW’s School of Social Work and the Business School.

The class, Contemporary U.S. Workplace: Social Welfare and Efficiency in Firm-Employee Relations, is the brainchild of Howard Behar, former president of Starbuck’s North America operations, and his wife, Lynn, a UW social work graduate.

Behar said the idea for a class has been brewing for years, when he realized many business school job recruits showed more interest in bean counting than in distributing those beans to employees in a socially responsible manner.

“Human beings don’t really understand each other very well,” Behar said. “We need to make a better effort to learn to work together and understand our respective disciplines, whether it’s business, social work, public policy or engineering. In the end, it’s about human relationships — getting students to understand our commonalities instead of our differences is what will help make companies treat their employees with respect and care.”

Course instructors said the prevailing notion of contemporary American for-profit workplaces — maximizing profits on behalf of company owners — is fundamentally incompatible with concerns of social justice and the advancement of individual and social welfare. This kind of mentality, they say, needs to be changed.

Anna Haley-Lock, assistant professor of social work and co-instructor, said the class is geared toward students who eventually might help set employment policies. It has drawn graduate students from the business and social work schools as well as from the Evans School of Public Affairs.

“The class is multi-disciplinary and draws upon the fields of ethics, psychology, sociology, social work, public policy and economics,” she said. “We’ll study work-life balance and conflict, human resource management and address social welfare and efficiency concerns in the modern workplace.”

Tom Jones, co-instructor and professor of management and organization in the business school, says a goal of the course is to help future leaders balance people management and organizational performance skills.

“We hope students will see the benefits of paying attention to how they will relate to their key stakeholders — their employees,” he said. “Studies have shown that, despite conventional corporate wisdom, treating employees well can be good for a company’s bottom line. It’s not just about making money — your work life is also important to your well-being. We’ll figure out how and why firms make decisions around human resource management and how that affects their bottom line.”

He said that Costco, REI and Starbucks are consistently recognized for their responsible corporate behavior.

“Showing students how these companies can sustain solid profits while keeping employees happy will encourage them in their careers to carry out similarly strong, moral business practices,” he said.

Guest speakers will include Jim Sinegal, Jim Donald, Sally Jewell, and Craig Ueland, chief executive officers of Costco, Starbucks, REI and Russell Investment Group, respectively. They will detail how they’ve balanced profit-making and good employee relations.

Other guests are Marilyn Watkins, policy director of the Economic Opportunity Institute, and David Rolf, president of Service Employees International Union Local 775.

The UW Business School also offers joint classes with the law, pharmacy and education schools and colleges. The class, funded through a $250,000 grant by Behar, will be offered as an elective each spring for the next three years.