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In the Spotlight: Dr. Jill Purdy

Dr. Jill Purdy

Dr. Jill Purdy

Dr. Jill Purdy didn’t expect a steady stream of temp gigs to pave the way for a career spent studying – and teaching about – businesses and organizations. But, as she spent time in various administrative and secretarial jobs throughout high school and college, she found herself fascinated by the collage of workplace cultures she encountered. “It was like being an anthropologist discovering a new society,” she said.

Spurred in part by those experiences, Purdy earned a Ph.D. in Business Administration from Pennsylvania State University in 1994 and joined the University of Washington Tacoma’s Milgard School of Business that same year. Purdy, an associate professor of management, researches and teaches about organization theory, negotiation, conflict resolution and more.

When Purdy started at UWT, she couldn’t have imagined the sea changes that would shake the business world and provide steady streams of real-world lessons to share in the classroom. At the time, Enron wasn’t yet a household name or symbol of corporate greed; sustainability wasn’t a strategy for attracting new customers; and a widespread recession hadn’t yet shaken the foundations of the global economy. “We’ve had a little bit of culture change of what we expect and what we want from businesses,” she said. “There’s a different level of accountability, and I think people are paying a little more attention to it.”

Purdy chalks a lot of that change up to the Internet; consumers no longer have to rely on journalists for breaking news about companies, she said. Instead, social media and easily accessible public records made it easy for consumers to see if companies are faithfully representing their brands and living up to their mission. She points to the Red Cross as a prime example; in the days and weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the organization came under fire when it was discovered that donations didn’t always go toward those impacted by the storm. “I don’t think anybody would have been aware of that 25 years ago or paid much attention to it,” Purdy said. “The tools you use to pay attention are different now.”

She also looks at Seattle-based companies who think differently about philanthropy, environmental causes and social responsibility in an era when so much information is readily accessible. She praises Starbucks for ensuring that coffee growers in Costa Rica aren’t being exploited and that the coffee supply chains are being ethically sourced. “It’s become an expectation of doing business at that high level,” Purdy said. “People care about it; investors care about it; and it’s expected. It’s simply a norm.”

Purdy draws on these case studies for classroom lessons on management, board governance, and more. Many of these lessons resonate with students, she said, because they’ve grown up with the changes and have seen them develop first-hand. She also tries to tailor her lessons for students who might not start their own company or enter the business world. “You never know what you’re going to be doing, so you should be teaching things that apply in a lot of circumstances,” Purdy said. Her negotiation and conflict resolution class has helped students foster better personal relationships – even with in-laws, she said.

Outside of the classroom, Purdy is currently studying and researching benefit corporations, which promote positive environmental and ethical practices. The companies, Purdy explains, aren’t necessarily driven by high profits, but rather by the chance to help the environment, ensure the business is being run in an ethical way, and easily share that information with consumers. “It’s like being on the ground floor of a big social change and watching as it unfolds, as opposed to watching it in history,” Purdy said.

And, whether in the classroom or while studying a new generation of social entrepreneurship, Purdy finds herself curious by the same questions she asked as a temp: “Why is it things work out one way here, but they work differently at a different place?” she wonders. “We’re learning so much and getting so much information, we’ll have to see where it takes us.”

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