Earnings are down slightly and things are not looking great for your company this quarter. Your boss comes to you and says, “Look, if you could tweak the numbers—just a teensy bit—it will look like we didn’t lose money. We can make up the difference next quarter, no problem. Besides the amount is so small, it’s not a material difference.”

If you don’t do it, then three people will lose their jobs, including your officemate who has a family of four to support on her income alone.

What do you do? It’s right to report earnings truthfully, but it’s also right to help your coworkers keep their jobs.

How about this one: Your boss lets you know that staff reduction is inevitable in the coming months due to budget cuts, but the information is confidential. One of the staff members you know is going to be pinked asks you directly, “Do I need to start looking for a new job?” How do you respond?

Every day in the workplace, decisions like these are being made. Sometimes the choices are so commonplace that we make them without thinking, operating on ethical autopilot. Autopilot mode can get us in trouble, though, if like the proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water, it leads to a slippery slope of complacency that can be fatal—at least to your career.

Encouraging students to analyze these decisions is the goal of a few faculty members at Mays who are committed to training this next generation of business leaders to be ethically sensitive, not merely technically proficient.

The first challenge: strip the armor

Part of the problem with teaching ethics is that we all tend to see ourselves as fairly moral individuals already, says Roemer Visser, clinical assistant professor in the Undergraduate Special Programs Office. Students often think ethical training doesn’t apply to them. “Most of us, our students included, fool ourselves into thinking, “I would never do that,’ when it comes to unethical behavior,” says Visser. He describes an automatic judgment that happens when we hear of a scandal: That person did something unethical, ergo he or she is an unethical person. I, however, am an ethical person, so I wouldn’t behave that way.

This kind of cyclical reasoning is dangerous, he says, because given the right circumstances, nearly everyone—even highly moral people—will behave unethically.

“I’m trying to get them to understand, not only up here,” he points to his head, “…that just because their parents taught them good values does not inoculate them against ethical transgressions,” he said, commenting that to get to that point, he must strip the students of their armor of prejudgment and positive self-regard.

“If we screw up, we blame it on the circumstance. If somebody else screws up, we blame it on their character.”
—Roemer Visser

Visser works with students in the required sophomore-level course Integrated Work-life Competencies (BUSN 205). Part of the curriculum for the class focuses on ethics training.

It’s a tough subject to teach when most of the students think they understand it all already. Visser challenges preconceptions through small group discussions of ethical scenarios like the ones above, teaching them how to analyze the situation to discover “the higher right” instead of looking for the correct answer.

One of the most compelling cases they discuss is that of Betty Vinson, a midlevel accountant who was instructed to commit fraud by her boss, kicking off the Worldcom scandal. She spent five months in prison and five months under house arrest for her actions. Visser says that this case in particular resonates with students, who can identify with Vinson, a good person caught in a bad situation: lie or lose your job. “She was trying to do the right thing, yet…she ended up being the first one to go to jail.”

Real-world lessons

You would expect that with all of the current events to choose from—the financial collapse blamed on fraudulent accounting practices, Ponzi schemes, bank bailouts and inflated corporate compensation—that Visser would include plenty of headline news in his curriculum. Not so, he says. While some of these events illustrate the four kinds of ethical dilemmas (see sidebar), they don’t have much traction in the classroom.

  • Truth versus loyalty
  • Individual versus community
  • Justice versus mercy
  • Short-term versus long-term

“As informative as they are, most of the business cases I’ve worked with don’t really hit home [for students]. So, they become detached, clinical exercises in intellectual acrobatics and reasoning,” rather than scenarios students can identify with. Besides, “All of the cases we read about in the paper are the right versus wrong cases,” says Visser. That doesn’t make for much conversation. It’s the right versus right scenarios, where there are sound arguments on both sides, that bear further investigation.

It’s tough for students to acknowledge right versus right problems. “This generation is all about “right’,” says Visser. Even when they are told ahead of time that there is no one right solution to a problem, after spending a class period discussing the arguments of both sides of a case, they will still ask “What’s the right answer?”, and leave frustrated when there isn’t one.

“We need to be compassionate with this generation of students,” says Rushworth Kidder, the renowned ethicist who created part of the curriculum for Visser’s class. “They have been raised in a right versus wrong atmosphere. Everything they soak up, from talk radio, from the blogosphere, from the television news channels, from the way that people argue in public, it’s all about right versus wrong.” Kidder used politics as an example. “We don’t argue for the rightness of one candidate, we argue for the wrongness of the other,” he says. We criticize the opposition and turn the vote into a right versus wrong debate. Accepting that both options are right and you still have to choose one is uncomfortable.

Don’t rely on your gut

Part of the process of making sound ethical decisions is learning to not always go with your gut. Often we come to ethical decisions too quickly, says Visser. Our choices are reactive rather than analytical. When presented with a hypothetical dilemma, he asks students to build arguments in favor of both options in the scenario, but to refrain from making a decision about action. If you make the decision before you do the reasoning, it’s not reasoning, he says. It’s rationalizing. And when you’re rationalizing, you can make almost any choice seem defensible—even a wrong choice—”if you massage it long enough.”

“We make attributions about character based on actions. If somebody does something stupid, we say they are a stupid person. If they do something unethical, we say they are unethical. The reality is the overwhelming majority of unethical acts are committed by perfectly honorable people with the right intentions…It’s not about character.”
—Roemer Visser

“Often we respond to a gut feeling—oh this is wrong, or this is right—and we act on it. We don’t challenge it, we don’t interrogate it,” he says. “We need to get people to recognize when that is happening and hit that pause button, to say “I know that this is what I’m feeling right now, but do I really have all the information?'”

The label “ethics” can be a turn-off for students, because it sounds like heavy and philosophical. The truth is, when you reduce it to a process of analysis, of weighing all the information impartially, students realize that it doesn’t feel like “ethics”—it feels like problem solving.