Four students presenting during the ethics competition

What would you do? At business ethics competition, students discover all decisions are not black and white

Jan. 18, 2019 - Leila Ugincius

Meet Sameer, a fictional 20-something engineer who has worked for the same company, BABA, for the past five years. Anil Baba owns the company and, in the past, has watched employees leave after receiving extensive and expensive training.

Sameer, who has received four promotions at BABA, asks for a one-year leave of absence to pursue his MBA. He also asks that the company pay for the degree, since he will return to use his new skills to further expand the business. After several emails, promises of commitment and loyalty and a firm handshake, Baba agrees to send Sameer to graduate school on the condition that he stay with the company for at least three years, or else pay back the full tuition. Sameer signs a contract agreeing to this.

A year later, Sameer is finishing his MBA when he is contacted by a headhunting firm offering him a Silicon Valley job that would pay twice his current salary. The prospective employer, CloudSkim, also offers a signing bonus equal to 50 percent of his tuition.

Should Sameer return to BABA or take the new offer?

THE COMPETITION

When it comes to business ethics, decisions such as this aren’t black and white, as ninety Virginia Commonwealth University undergraduate students learned during the School of Business’ first ethics competition this fall. Meant to encourage robust discussion and critical thought concerning ethical issues, the $10,000 competition provided students an opportunity to showcase their talents and creativity, while interacting with their peers and business leaders.

Interdisciplinary student teams met with business community mentors and studied various philosophical theories to determine the best solution to the above ethical dilemma, then presented to first-round panels of judges. School of Business Foundation Trustee Billy Gifford (B.S. ’92/B), vice chairman and chief financial officer, Altria Group, Inc., welcomed the students and announced the five teams continuing to the final round.

TEAM DECISIONS

Ultimately, four of the five finalist teams decided Sameer should stay with BABA, and one recommended that he negotiate with BABA for a promotion.

Jacob Wilbourne, a marketing student and a member of one team, said his group based its decision on utilitarianism, which follows the ideal that “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few.”

“Through our quantitative approach, we really decided that BABA is the best decision, but that's only one half of it,” Wilbourne said.

“After equally considering both ethical theories, both utilitarian and the rights-based theory —based on Immanuel Kant’s theory that the morality of an action is based on whether it is right or wrong, rather than on the consequences of the action — as well as all the stakeholders, our recommendation is for Sameer to return to BABA,” said Edgar Barajas, a real estate student.

While Charles Lowe and his team also looked at utilitarianism, they arrived at their decision based on the theories of Thomism, founded on the writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, the 13th-century Catholic theologian.

“Both Thomism and utilitarianism seek good, but do so in different ways,” Lowe said. “The key difference lies within utilitarianism's view on the greater good. In many situations taken under a utilitarian approach, there will be a group of people left negatively affected by the outcome of a decision simply because the ends of that decision justified the means, which directly conflicts with Thomistic values.”

Ultimately, Lowe and his teammates found that accepting CloudSkim’s offer would damage Sameer’s credibility with both companies.

“Any employee willing to break his word simply for his own personal gain will not be trusted by any employer,” Lowe said. “Any future employer of Sameer's will be sure to keep this in mind if he is to break this contract with Mr. Baba.”

El Ghali Faik’s team looked at four ethical dilemmas: familial, integrity, wealth security and instant gratification. In the end, the team also decided the most ethical decision in this scenario would be for Sameer to stay with BABA.

“We define ethics as a decision which eliminates circumstantial variability in emotional desire and is based simply upon logic and who it impacts in the macroenvironment,” said Faik, an information systems major. “So we decided from an ethical standpoint that Sameer would be better off staying true to his word.”

BUSINESS COMMUNITY INVOLVEMENT

Business community support for the Inaugural Ethics Competition was widespread, from sparking the original idea to seven volunteer mentors and 22 volunteer judges from a variety of industries, and sponsorship by Altria.

“Ethics truly is the foundation of business. Most decisions employees make are not black and white and require a sound judgement of what’s right and wrong” says Ethics Competition judge, Crystal Wersching who is senior director, Procurement Services, Altria Client Services. The school plans to host the competition again next year with Altria Group, Inc. already signing on as sponsor.

WINNERS

First place ($5,000 winner)
Gray Spectrum Consulting: Edgar Barajas, Alejandra Hatcher-Mendoza, Salman Vohra and Jacob Wilbourne 

Second place ($3,000 winner)
The E Team: Amin Adem, Roy Dunia, El Ghali Faik, Joseph Tesfay 

Third place ($2,000 winner)
Philanthropic Philosophers: Santiago Barrero, Nina Dela Cruz, Olivia Johnson, Charles Lowe

Finalist
Generation Ethix: Thabit Ababneh, Kathryn Swensen, Bidesh Thapa, Alexander Truong

Finalist
From Immoral to I’m Moral:
Jacqueline Portillo-Palacios, Dorothy Raju, Christopher Strickler, Brandon Wright