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Exxon at Grand Bois, Louisiana: A Three-Level Analysis of Management Decision Making and Corporate Conduct

  • J. Brooke Hamilton III and Eric J. Berken

In the early 1990s, managers at Exxon decided to seek lower cost disposal in Louisiana for oil-field wastes declared hazardous in Alabama. This decision resulted in injuries to the residents of Grand Bois, Louisiana; the disposal company; Exxon; and the oil industry in the state. Given the need for business and society to manage business operations for mutual benefit, it is essential to understand why businesses injure the public so that similar incidents do not happen again. The authors use three analytical perspectives to suggest how corporations may make unethical decisions without purposefully setting out to do so: their managers may fail to understand changing social expectations for corporate behavior; they may adopt organizational structures, policies, and procedures that block ethical action in the name of efficiency; and they may follow unwritten rules of behavior for career success that exclude ethics. These perspectives suggest that individual Exxon managers may not have been making greed-based decisions, weighing corporate gains against harms to others. The situation more likely involved a failure, for the reasons discussed, to raise ethics questions in making business decisions. This explanation does not make much difference to those injured nor does it absolve those who made the decisions. It does make a difference to society and to companies seeking to understand factors that have to be overcome in any large corporation that wishes to prevent such events from occurring.

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Business Ethics Quarterly
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