Business Through an Ethical Lens

Students take an “ethical inventory” to learn how they form their own perceptions—and how these might differ from those of the people around them.
Business Through an Ethical Lens

In his 17 years as executive director of the Ohio Ethics Commission, David Freel found that ethical lapses in business most often arise not from malice, but from inappropriate self-interest. Whether it’s because their leaders model bad behavior or their organizations offer ill-advised incentives, even good people with good intentions can falter if they lack a solid framework for making ethical decisions.

Freel refers to the example of the sex abuse scandal at Penn State, where several janitors didn’t report what they saw because they feared losing their jobs. “We must get students to realize that they could make the same mistake,” he says. “They need to have a way to see the ethical alternatives available to them, so they can make better decisions.”

Unfortunately, the business curriculum traditionally views ethical behavior as an emotional response, not a decision-making strategy, says Freel, now a lecturer in management and human resources at The Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business in Columbus. “We teach students decision-making frameworks for human resources, law, and finance, but when it comes to ethics, there’s this notion that we should rely on our gut instincts,” he says.

That’s why educators like Freel have turned to two classroom tools provided by EthicsGame, a company based in Denver, Colorado. These tools present the study of ethics to students in terms of strategy, not just conscience. The first, the Ethical Lens Inventory (ELI), is an online self-evaluation exercise that helps users identify their personal values and understand how those values affect the decisions they make. The second is a set of interactive simulations that ask students to analyze and make decisions in a variety of ethical situations.

EthicsGame was founded by Catharyn Baird, professor emerita of business at Regis University in Denver, Colorado. Baird says she designed the suite of online exercises and simulations because she wanted to offer her students a method for ethical decision making that tapped into their own belief systems, without getting them bogged down in complex ethical theories.

Baird designed the tools to advance students’ “ethical maturity” throughout their educations. Freshmen, for instance, can start with the ELI to identify the beliefs they acquired from their families as children and choose which beliefs they want to keep as adults. Seniors, on the other hand, can use the tools to explore how they want to apply those beliefs to their professional lives. Graduate students can see how they can integrate the value systems they’ve honed over the years into their approaches to leadership.

In many ways, Baird says, the ELI and other EthicsGame learning tools complement the Giving Voice to Values curriculum developed by the Aspen Institute Business and Society Program in New York City and the Yale School of Management in New Haven, Connecticut. Directed by Mary Gentile of Babson College in Babson Park, Massachusetts, Giving Voice to Values focuses on helping students develop the courage to speak up when they see unethical behavior. (See “Voicing Values, Finding Answers” in the July/August 2008 issue of BizEd.) “Mary’s work offers a foundation for teaching students how to have shared conversations about ethics,” says Baird. “My work offers a foundation for ethical decision making after those conversations take place.”

THE FOUR LENSES

Baird argues that every person views the world through one of four ethical perspectives, or “lenses.” The ELI gives students a way to determine which lens most represents their own outlook. It also helps professors delve into ethical principles without having to teach students complex philosophical treatises on morals and the human condition.

The ELI’s framework is based on sets of core values that are in constant tension with one another: autonomy (the rights of the individual) fights with equality (the good of the community), and rationality (reason/head) fights with sensibility (intuition/heart). The four lenses, which each combine two of these values, include:

  • The Rights/Responsibilities lens, for those who emphasize individual rights and rely on rational thought to make decisions. Those in this category value respect and hope their work benefits others, the deontological view of ethics shared by German philosopher Immanuel Kant.
  • The Results lens, for those who emphasize individual rights and rely on emotion and intuition to determine the right course of action. Those in this category value mutual respect and individual responsibility, the utilitarian view of British philosopher John Stuart Mill.
  • The Relationship lens, for those who emphasize the rights of the community and rely on emotion and intuition. Those who view the world through this lens value fairness and want to empower the powerless, similar to the justice-based view of American philosopher John Bordley Rawls.
  • The Reputation lens, for those who emphasize the rights of the community and rely on rational thought. Those in this category value compassion for others, similar to the view of Aristotle and Scottish philosopher Alasdair Chalmers MacIntyre.

The ELI consists of 36 pairs of words or statements. Students choose the option in each pair that they believe most applies to them. For instance, do they prefer to work alone or as part of a team? Do they prefer to think through a problem first or jump in and see what happens? Their answers determine which ethical lens they use the most. Tara Ceranic of the University of San Diego’s College of Business in California uses the ELI in her undergraduate course “Business and Society.” After her students complete the ELI, she asks them to plot their individual results on the EthicsGame chart that illustrates the four-lens conept (see the chart on the next page). Inevitably, many students are astonished at how different their views of the world are from the views of their classmates, says Ceranic. The conversation about understanding and appreciating ethical diversity begins in earnest from there. “Most of my students have never discussed why other people make the ethical decisions they do,” she says. Seeing the scatter plot of their classmates’ ELI results against their own makes them realize that there are different ways to look at the same problem, says Ceranic.

“If a school’s marketing professors and accounting professors and strategy professors aren’t telling students  that ethics is important, that’s  basically telling them it’s not.”— Tara Ceranic, University of San Diego

With further discussion, students also learn the weaknesses that their ethical lenses are prone to—such as selfishness, greed, or submissiveness. With that awareness, they can learn strategies to avoid the decision-making pitfalls common prefer to think through a problem first or jump in and see what happens? Their answers determine which ethical lens they use the most.

Tara Ceranic of the University of San Diego’s College of Business in California uses the ELI in her undergraduate course “Business and Society.” After her students complete the ELI, she asks them to plot their individual results on the EthicsGame chart that illustrates the four-lens conept (see the chart on the next page). Inevitably, many students are astonished at how different their views of the world are from the views of their classmates, says Ceranic. The conversation about understanding and appreciating ethical diversity begins in earnest from there.

“Most of my students have never discussed why other people make to those who view ethics through a particular lens.

“It’s important for them to ask, ‘How far can I express my autonomy as an individual? When must I bend my will to the community?’” says Baird. “They must make sure that the individual and the community are always in dialogue.”

GETTING IN THE GAME

Professors who want to take the ELI one step further can incorporate one of three types of Ethics- Game simulations:

  • Ethics Exercises. This series of multiple choice questions presents students with different ethical dilemmas in rapid-fire fashion—in each case, students must decide which option represents the most ethical decision. Each question is constructed so that most people would agree on the best answer, Baird explains. However, many questions challenge students by requiring them to choose answers based on ethical lenses different from their own.
  • Hot Topics Simulations. This tool includes more than 120 case studies based on real-life scenarios culled from news stories, court cases, or experiences from business leaders. Unlike the dilemmas in the Ethics Exercises, those presented as Hot Topics challenge many students’ assumptions that ethical dilemmas come in obvious forms—such as embezzlement or fraud—and have clear “right” or “wrong” answers. The EthicsGame simulations are designed to show them that ethical dilemmas are rarely so cut-and-dried in the workplace, says Baird.
  • For instance, in “The Case of the Veiled ID,” a company’s female Muslim employee wears a veil that covers her entire face, because her religion prohibits her from revealing her face to any male other than her husband. After a former employee breaks into its offices, the company wants all employees entering the building to show a photo ID to security personnel, all of whom are male. Should the woman be forced to remove her veil for her photo?

    In “The Case of the Mangled Miracle Drug,” a company develops a cure for HIV, but its latest batch of the drug becomes contaminated. Knowing the drug can still save lives, a minister of health for an African nation is willing to buy the drug, fully aware of its contamination and willing to disclose its status and potential side effects to patients. What is the most ethical course of action?

    One of the game’s newest cases involves a practice just recently being covered by the media—the process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, that energy companies are using to extract natural gas from underground layers of shale.

    Students react especially emotionally to the case involving the miracle drug, because they don’t like the choices they have to make, says Baird. In the fracking case, students must balance people’s need for clean drinking water with the country’s need for energy independence. “In all of these cases,” she says, “it’s not clear what the right answer is.”

    It’s important for students to ask,  “How far can I express my autonomy as an individual? When must I bend my will to the community?” They must make sure that the individual and the community  are always in dialogue. — Catharyn Baird, EthicsGame
  • Core Values. Most often used in graduate-level courses, Core Values is a semester-long writing intensive team-based simulation. Students each take on a leadership role within their teams, and each team then creates a profit-and-loss statement for a fictional biotech company based on its members’ individual and collective decisions. Throughout the simulation, students are exposed to issues relating to discrimination, conflicts of interest, corporate governance, corporate social responsibility, and international business.

For both Hot Topics Simulations and Core Values, Baird developed a decision-making model that takes students through a five-step decision-making process: data gathering, to discover the facts and individuals involved; contextualizing, to determine what values are at stake; analyzing, to decide how the four ethical lenses apply to the case; acting, to make a decision they believe leads to the greatest good; and reflecting, to discuss how that decision reflects their core values.

Ceranic uses both the ELI and the simulations in her MBA course, “Ethics, Values, and Corporate Culture.” She also requires students to write papers that document their reactions to being forced to use ethical lenses other than their own. “This exercise shakes students out of their comfort zones,” Ceranic says.

We must demonstrate to students that no one is above bad behavior. They have to realize that it’s “there but for the grace of a higher power go any of us,” whether it’s robo-signatures on home mortgages or phone hacking at News of the World. — David Freel, Ohio State University

Freel of the Fisher College uses the ELI and the Giving Voice to Values curriculum in his undergraduate and graduate business ethics courses. He agrees that if students are to become great leaders, it’s crucial that they appreciate how others might approach the same situation from different but equally viable ethical perspectives. “It’s the ability to compare and contrast perspectives,” he says, “that will help them make the best decisions.”

REAL-WORLD ETHICS

Once students are exposed to the EthicsGame tools, they can apply what they’ve learned in the real world. Freel, for example, asks students in his MBA-level course “Business Ethics” to analyze articles, complete group projects, discuss ethics stories recently in the news, and write papers in response to two guest speaker presentations on ethical dilemmas.

“It’s important to demonstrate to students that no one is above bad behavior, not even themselves. They have to realize that it’s ‘there but for the grace of a higher power go any of us,’ whether it’s the scandal at Penn State, robo signatures on home mortgages, or phone hacking at the News of the World,” says Freel.

He also brings up positive examples, such as Target, which sets annual goals for corporate social responsibility, from increasing its sustainable seafood selection to using more sustainable packing for its store brand products. Each year, the company issues a report that makes those goals public, as well as graphs that show its progress on achieving the previous year’s goals. “As educators, we sometimes spend so much time focusing on negative ethical examples that we don’t talk enough about the positive examples,” says Freel.

Ceranic asks her undergraduate students to give presentations analyzing articles they’ve read about current real-world ethical dilemmas in business using concepts they’ve learned in the class.

One popular topic students chose for their presentations last year was the Taiwan-based electronics manufacturer FoxConn, which has admitted to using child labor and has faced scrutiny for possible mistreatment of employees. “Before this class, it’s not that students wouldn’t have seen FoxConn as an ethical issue,” says Ceranic. “It’s that they wouldn’t have been paying attention to FoxConn, period.”

This work shows them I’m not just standing up in a classroom talking about hypothetical topics that aren’t important. They see that this stuff matters. — Tara Ceranic, University of San Diego

Ceranic’s MBA students spend the semester working with San Diego companies to assess the effectiveness of their ethics policies—or help write them if none exist. Some student teams work with startups whose busy founders have not yet had time to write codes of conduct. Other teams work with large companies with ethics policies that haven’t been updated for years. In that case, students make leaders aware of how ethical norms have changed, help them revise their policies, and emphasize how important it is for employees to regularly see those policies in action.

“This work shows them I’m not just standing up in a classroom talking about hypothetical topics that aren’t important,” says Ceranic. “They see that this stuff matters.”

CAN ETHICS BE TAUGHT?

In the past, says Baird, many educators believed that if they exposed their students to ethical role models, their students would be inspired to act ethically in their careers. But once in the workplace, business graduates are as susceptible as anyone else to peer pressure, misguided corporate incentives, and intimidation in the face of authority. “We need to do more to prepare students to make the most ethical decisions in the safety of the classroom, before they move forward,” she says.

Standalone courses on ethics are valuable, Ceranic adds, but they don’t go far enough to make an impression on students. “If a school’s marketing professors and accounting professors and strategy professors aren’t also telling students that ethics is important, that’s basically telling them it’s not,” she says. “The less siloed ethics is in a curriculum, the better off students will be.”

That brings everything back to the big question: Can ethics be taught? Well, yes and no. These educators agree that professors can’t drastically shift students’ personal values, which have been instilled in them since they were born. But they can heighten students’ awareness of how those values can and will affect the decisions they make once they enter the workforce—for better or for worse.

For more information about Ethics- Game, visit www.ethicsgame.com. To read more about the Giving Voice to Values curriculum, visit www.aspencbe.org/teaching/gvv/index.html.