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Building Ethical Leaders

Ethical Thinking for Managers is a required course for Jenkins MBA students, in an effort to gain a foundation in ethical principles — and practice applying those principles in real-world scenarios. 

Imagine you’re a manager at a company and know layoffs are coming, but you’ve been told not to discuss them with your employees until the business makes an announcement. At the same time, you have an employee — who will lose her job — who’s in the process of buying a house.      

What do you do?   

“You value that employee and their well-being, but you also have an obligation to the company to not talk about the layoff ahead of time…because the company might suffer,” says Poole College of Management accounting professor Eileen Taylor, whose course, “Ethical Thinking for Managers” is required for new Jenkins MBA students.  

With Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen’s testimony against the company before Congress in October, the explosive leaks of WikiLeaks about U.S. diplomatic and foreign affairs, and prominent businesses such as Wells Fargo that have made headlines for questionable or illegal practices in recent years, ethics in management is receiving heightened scrutiny among lawmakers, the general public and the business world. 

MBA students need a foundation in ethical principles — and practice applying those principles in real-world scenarios — that they can draw on throughout their careers.

“The decisions they make as managers help create the world they live in…and will change the world in some way for some group of people,” Taylor says. “We want to get managers to really understand that they are personally responsible for the decisions they make, and it’s not an excuse to say they’re doing it for a company…Students need to think about the world they want to create and what decisions they need to make to get there.”

The course, launched in spring 2021, introduces students to core concepts:

  • ethical traits such as integrity, fairmindedness, empathy, courage and humility
  • ethical paradigms that examine truth and loyalty, individual and community, short term and long term, and justice and mercy 
  • an ethical fitness model that provides guidance in analyzing and resolving ethical dilemmas

Students learn the important difference between moral decisions and ethical dilemmas.

“Moral is just right or wrong — you know what the answer is,” Taylor says. “With an ethical dilemma, it’s two equally valid values, and you have to choose between values like the individual’s well-being versus the community’s well-being… Managers manage businesses that employ people, so any time you have people, you have ethical dilemmas.”

Covid-19 has created another ethical dilemma for managers.

Many people who work entirely remotely have moved from high-cost areas to more affordable localities. In response, some companies are reducing their pay. Those businesses “were paying a cost-of-living premium to get an employee to live there. But from the employee’s perspective, why should they be paid less? It’s a dilemma,” Taylor says. “That’s a strategic move on management’s part to decide what to do.”

The ethical thinking course will help students decide what to do when they’re in management positions. They learn to consider how their decisions will impact others, how to recognize their biases, and the importance of getting an objective viewpoint from a mentor to help resolve a dilemma.       

Before making a decision, managers should “think about who this is going to affect and how it would look to others if they made this decision,” Taylor says.

Is it going to make things better or worse for people?…I’m getting students to be more aware of their personal responsibility.

That humanistic emphasis differentiates Taylor’s course from ethics classes offered in other business programs, which often focus on doing what’s legal and avoiding what’s not legal. 

“My course is not so much a course of conduct or rules to follow. It’s more about individual behavior and the development of the manager as an ethical person, someone who goes beyond the minimum standard of behavior and behaves ethically,” she says.

Most managers do behave ethically, despite the high-profile incidents in the news, Taylor notes. 

“That’s not really the norm, that’s just what’s shown in the media,” she says. “Not all businesses buy into the profit-as-king philosophy…That isn’t the mission of any company I know.”  

She believes Jenkins MBA students are the same way. 

“I am impressed with the students. They want to do the right thing,” Taylor says.  

I’m hopeful and heartened that they really do want to make their workplaces good and caring for employees. That’s their focus…It’s not about profits as a priority.

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