“Here’s How I Handled It”
The University of Notre Dame has long been known for bringing ethics into the classroom. The traditional approach is for students to discuss cases chosen by the professor. But Professor Joe Holt is turning that practice around.
For the last two semesters, Holt has been trying a student-discussion approach in some of the Foundations of Principled Business Conduct courses, which he teaches to MBA and Executive MBA students. Rather than teach from an ethics textbook and apply theory to cases drawn from the headlines, he has his students reflect on their own personal values, draw up their own statement of guiding principles, and then discuss in class the difficult workplace situations they’ve faced—and how they handled them.
To start off the course, Holt asks students to consider the meaning of success. Is it as simple as the attainment of wealth, fame or position, as a dictionary might define it? Students then read and discuss Leo Tolstoy’s 1886 novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which tells the story of a successful middle-aged judge who is dying of a terminal illness. Ilych had lived only for his career and social advancement, and realizes too late that his family and friends care nothing for him. In his final days, he wishes he had lived a more meaningful life. This assignment is a favorite with students, Holt says, because it invites them to examine their own lives.
Next, students write a personal statement of guiding principles, values and goals—their own mission statement. Then, after studying a variety of classical and modern ethical theories, each student writes a personal framework for moral decision making. “It helps them come up with a tool they can use on Monday when a dilemma comes up,” Holt says.
One exercise, from the Giving Voice to Values initiative launched by research director Mary Gentile in association with the Aspen Institute, has students share situations in which they were asked to do something that went against their values but they resisted successfully. They also talk about situations in which they didn’t resist, and the factors that prevented them from acting: Perhaps they felt too junior in the company or faced peer pressure. Holt has students discuss practical ways to effect change, even in high-stakes situations. They include forging compromises, getting buy-in from others, acting in a timely manner, spotting pitfalls and using diplomacy. “It’s not enough to know the right thing to do and to be committed to doing it,” Holt says, “you also have to have courage and know what concrete steps to take to accomplish good in a particular organizational environment.”
Then students submit a “Front Line Ethics” case, which describes a challenging situation they encountered in the workplace. In class, Holt presents a case just to the point where the dilemma comes in. He then asks the class, “What should he or she do and why?” After a lively group discussion, the student who wrote the case explains what he did and why, how it worked, and whether he’d do it the same way again.
Three students shared their “Front Line Ethics” cases for this article. Their names and some details are changed to preserve confidentiality.
Lie or be fired
A software maker sent Alan to a multimillion-dollar client to improve a poor customer service situation through training classes. While Alan was leading a class, a company director entered the room and started asking him questions about what the software could do. Alan honestly answered that the software package did not offer all the desired functions. This irritated the director, and he left abruptly. Within a week, a top manager in Alan’s home office called him in and demanded to know what he told the client. Hearing Alan’s answers, the manager angrily told him that he had contradicted information the sales group had given to the client.
The manager gave Alan two choices: call the client and say he did not know what he was talking about, or resign.
Alan walked around the building for about 20 minutes trying to absorb this turn of events, but he knew what he had to do. He resigned.
Over the next week, Alan remembers feeling depressed. He had severance and vacation pay to last him only two months. He had a wife and child to think about, plus mortgage payments looming.
But as people found out Alan was available, he started fielding offers for consulting work and staff positions. Today, he works for himself, making three to four times his previous salary, and above all, he says, “I sleep well at night.”
Alan says he would not change a thing about how he handled the situation. “Great things came my way right after my ‘resignation,’ and I believe that is because the people that I work with now realize my integrity.”
Don’t rock the corporate boat
Joan was a middle manager at a big company where she felt out of step with the culture. Higher managers condoned what she considered objectionable practices, and even the junior employees showed no desire to buck the system.
Joan recalls that when the company added a system upgrade to its freight applications, management discovered it was overcharging customers: $20 shipping charges were now $40. When this error was found, a manager decided to let the overcharges ride despite Joan’s strenuous objections. The manager replied that fixing the system would be difficult and expensive.
“I lost that one,” Joan recalls. “Then you start to be seen as someone who is not comfortable with the status quo.”
Joan also felt out of touch with her immediate boss, a woman who seemed to surround herself with yes-men and yes-women. The boss would ask her team for feedback about her performance as a manager and then retaliate if their opinions didn’t match hers. She punished contrarians like Joan by speaking aggressively to them in meetings and failing to invite them to important companywide events.
Even worse, it was rumored that the boss would put careers on ice. “A big part of access to the next level was having an advocate, and the most powerful advocate is your boss,” Joan recalls. “She wouldn’t question your performance, but would suggest [to upper management] that you are not a potential fit for the next level.”
Joan felt it was in the company’s best interests for employees to give forthright feedback. But when she spoke up at meetings, sparks continued to fly.
She ultimately decided that she could not control her manager’s reaction to her opinions, but she could control whether she was being honest. “It was my issue to deal with, not hers. I had the power to decide whether to continue to work there.”
A turning point came when the boss landed a promotion. “It was a validation of what they valued at the company,” Joan says. Around this time, Joan felt pushed out the door: The company told her to take a transfer to a different city that she didn’t want.
Joan found another job at a company with a more open culture.
She says she has no regrets about standing up to what she considered unethical business practices, but after participating in the ethics class, she believes she could have handled many situations in a more effective way, perhaps by building consensus or speaking more diplomatically. “I would have more carefully picked my battles,” she adds.
Looking back on her former job, Joan says she will always wonder what might have been. “But Professor Holt says you are growing and learning your whole life. You can look back and say, ‘I made the wrong choice five years ago,’ but it should not be a burden you carry the rest of your life. We all make mistakes. The important thing is that we learn, gain perspective, and make better choices in the future.”
Help a subordinate—at your own risk
Mitchell, a middle-level manager, had a superstar salesman. Bob closed $15 million in new business sales in a single year, the best the company had ever seen, and brought in almost $10 million a year from existing clients.
But a year later, upper managers noticed a drastic decline in Bob’s performance. They told Mitchell to find and fix the problem.
On a visit to Bob’s territory, Mitchell was struck by the change in Bob’s personality and work ethic. Bob was unwilling to discuss issues in his region, showed poor motivation, and had developed a negative outlook on life.
Bob’s sales numbers continued to slump. His customers complained about a lack of support. Mitchell visited Bob again, and this time noticed Bob smelled of alcohol every morning. Bob explained that he went out after their dinners “to blow off steam.” Mitchell realized Bob was in denial over a drinking problem.
Mitchell met with upper managers and said he suspected that the region’s poor performance was due to Bob’s alcoholism, adding that Bob needed help immediately. The managers told Mitchell to fire Bob due to poor performance. Mitchell countered that this formerly outstanding employee deserved help rather than termination. He proposed that Bob take time off to seek professional care, while Mitchell would ask Bob’s family to help. The managers disagreed. They told Mitchell he could help Bob if he liked, but that his own job would be on the line if Bob didn’t recover and perform at his former level.
Mitchell was stunned. He recalls talking the situation over with his wife. At first, she was concerned about money. “But she understood,” he says. “She is very religious and humane. She said nobody is giving this man any help, but somebody has to help him. Without her blessing, I don’t know if I could have done this.”
Mitchell contacted Bob’s family, who did a successful intervention. Bob went into counseling and rehab, and is now sober. Mitchell gives the credit to Bob’s hard work fighting the disease and to his family’s support. Mitchell’s division returned to its peak performance.
Mitchell’s case was discussed in an Executive MBA class and in an MBA class that he joined by teleconference. When Mitchell’s classmates discussed his case, “their take was, ‘I don’t know if I could have taken that risk,’” he recalls. Some students questioned whether Mitchell would be serving the best interests of the company’s customers, employees and others by putting so much on the line for one employee.
Mitchell says if presented with the same situation, he would do the same thing. “Companies come and go, there are profits gained and profits lost, but someone’s life is abundantly more important than that.”
Mitchell says this is one of the more satisfying courses he’s taken: “It takes real-world issues most people read about but never act on. In each case, there is no right or wrong. You have to dig deep, reflect and decide what you would do in that situation. You see a lot of people pouring their hearts out in this class.” He adds, “We are all going to be leaving this program with a different view of business, on a different moral and ethical level, as we handle day-to-day situations.”
Alan, the software professional, reflects on the class this way: “This is why I chose Notre Dame for business school. Notre Dame not only talks the talk but walks the walk.”
Alumni interested in contributing a front line ethics case to Notre Dame’s growing database for class discussion are invited to e-mail Prof. Holt at firstname.lastname@example.org.
—Nancy P. Johnson is a South Bend-based writer.