Ethics: Gautam Style

Gautam Ahuja won the 2016 BPS Irwin Outstanding Educator award. It became clear from student testimonials that the capstone ethics lecture was not just memorable, it was an emotional peak that few students (or teachers) ever reach. What follows is a brief description/outline of the lecture. While it certainly won’t do it justice, it may offer some important ideas for instructors to explore.

I have them debate an actual decision (that varies from year to year). Essentially, I pick some current significant and controversial business decision or event that is legal and ideally, morally ambiguous, or even amoral (not immoral), at least apriori, and then foster a discussion on its pros and cons. This reveals much deeper fundamental issues. To illustrate I have used the following in different years:

  1. The decision by banks to award bonuses to traders for being on the “correct” side of the financial crisis deals in the years following the Lehman collapse
  2. The decision by a chemical company to use local safety standards in its different markets, which is completely legal,
  3. The decision to sell skin whitening creams in countries in India by large multinational companies,
  4. Provision of significantly discounted or couponed milk products for newborns,
  5. The federal reserves decision to keep interest rates low for the last x years
    and so on…

I then try and get them to debate this and, almost invariably, there emerge two sides to the issue. However what is interesting is that three other factors usually emerge: A) the problem is much deeper and more morally ambiguous than you thought, B) reflexive reversion to standard MBA, theories frameworks and concepts often leads to very flawed decisions ( in a good session an amazing large number of people change their initial decision), and C) In fact using the framework is itself part of the problem.

The framework is an amoral tool that makes problems clinically clean and thus may suppress one’s natural human instincts. Beneath any set of cash flows is a set of affected humans, many of whom are not represented at the table at which the decision is made. Focusing on NPV analysis and the cash flows can blind the decision maker (by providing a false sense of rational, systematic, comprehensive analysis) to all the other, human implications of the decision. The tools are clinical and amoral (NPV, five forces, etc.) but for precisely that reason the manager cannot afford to be so. In fact, it is the managers job to speak for those that are not present at the table but will be affected by the decision being made. And to identify and accurately reflect their position, you don’t need frameworks and analysis, it isn’t your brain that you need to put to work, it is your heart. So the bottom line is, usually in morally ambiguous decisions, there is a small voice inside you that is telling you something, listen to it, give it a chance to speak. Let your brain do the analysis but give your heart a veto. And if you think a major decision doesn’t seem to be morally ambiguous, think harder (the first part of the discussion should already have done this so it is good to close the loop with reminder)

Warning: the class can get very uncomfortable and emotional on all sides, including the instructor. A precondition is that there is a deep level of mutual respect already developed on all sides. I would not do it in a class where they don’t know each other and you very well.

Connection top Culture. Because of the “need for the heart to have a veto,” many ethical decisions are influenced strongly by the corporate culture. As such, one might explore ethics after a class exercise on corporate culture (such as the culture artifact hunt). Then one can prime the ethics discussion with some examples where wrong turns on ethical dilemmas have been attributed to the company culture. Here are some examples from the news (along with some related PowerPoint slides):

Contributed by Gautam Ahuja and Russ Coff

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