Learning to differ

Whether it’s employee misconduct in the workplace or discriminatory hiring practices, today’s business world is fraught with a spectrum of issues that affect the bottom line.

Given the impact on society, faculty have worked to make these problematic topics part of the classroom discussion. Whether they are using new third-party applications to help foster discussions or evaluating recent case studies, professors are trying many ways to get students thinking — and talking.

The human side of management

For Don Lange, an associate professor of management and entrepreneurship, values and morals are an integral part of his curriculum. In Lange’s course, Ethical Issues for Managers, he explores the human aspect of business as he tries to get his students to analyze the behaviors of those in charge.

“Many people who get themselves into ethical trouble in business have succumbed to common human tendencies that can widen the values-behavior gap,” says Lange, who is Lincoln Professor of Management Ethics. “For instance, humans are apt to feel less personal responsibility when operating in groups. Individuals easily take cues from others about how to behave, essentially turning off their considerations of right versus wrong.”

Lange uses a third-party platform in his classroom called OpenMind which, in his words, “teaches how reasonable people — good people — often see things differently from each other.” OpenMind describes itself as a “psychology-based educational platform designed to depolarize communities and foster mutual understanding across differences.” In Lange’s eyes, it’s imperative to foster discussions on both sides, and he says that students have reacted positively to this so far.

“The module teaches not only the importance of listening to and learning from others who see things differently, but it also gives students concrete instruction in how to break down communication barriers with others,” he says.

“The key is to recognize the deeper value agreements that often underlie disagreements at the issue level. We combine the online module with in-class exercises where students practice discussing difficult topics with other students who strongly disagree.”

Happy employees equals happy customers and investors

Some professors have changed their syllabi to add textbooks to help foster these types of discussions. In his course, Leading People, Teams, and Organizations: Organization Theory, Professor of Management Blake Ashforth utilizes the book “Firms of Endearment” as a supplement. The book explores the ways companies succeed by ensuring that all stakeholders — from customers to employees — are happy, rather than solely being concerned with turning a profit. Ashforth says he was looking for a book students could deconstruct, and it allows them to engage with what he describes as “non-academic business issues.”

“It’s not all about making the investor happy,” says Ashforth. “There are employees, customers, suppliers, and a community to take care of.”

Ashforth says that the message of the book is enduring. Companies deal with a wide range of issues that have a ripple effect, many of which can turn into public relations disasters. However, the path a company takes when these issues occur has an impact on its long-term health.

Southwest Airlines is an ideal example of a company that embodies the values within “Firms of Endearment.” The airline often stands with its employees, even if it may not be popular, which ultimately helps the company in the long run.

“It’s hugely positive for employees and cuts against the grain,” Ashforth says.

Having the opportunity to study these real-world applications has been important for Ashforth’s students, who are able to use a “management lens” to evaluate issues that crop up on a daily basis while applying the book’s core philosophy.

“It’s all about doing well by doing good,” according to Ashforth.

Effects of poor ethics in accounting

A common focus for business school professors is getting students ready for the workplace. Preparing her students for day-to-day life in the accounting profession is the core aim of Melissa Samuelson’s Ethics for Professional Accountants course. The clinical assistant professor of accountancy says that the main thing is to teach students to be aware of the potential risks and issues of the field, and how to make “well-reasoned, holistic decisions” when faced with ethical challenges.

Samuelson ultimately wants her students to focus on being responsible to the public, noting that failures fill the profession in this area. She says she has talked about cases such as Wells Fargo’s fake account scandal and the housing bubble to illustrate the ways that unethical behavior reverberates to affect society. Having this type of balanced discussion is crucial, as she wants her students — many of them future accountants — to see the personal impact of wrongdoing.

“We talk about how the profession relates to society, as our students go on to become licensed professionals,” says Samuelson, adding that the profession is going to face evolving challenges on the ethical front in coming years, and her students are likely going to have to consider a whole new slate of issues.

“How technology changes the business world is important,” says Samuelson. “There are new issues with artificial intelligence, and you need to look at the risks of relying on technology.”

Taking a stand on social issues

Like Samuelson, Assistant Professor of Management and Entrepreneurship David Welsh focuses on getting his students ready for the next step in their careers. In his online course, Ethical Issues for Managers, Welsh teaches his MBA students about the social issues facing managers today. As part of the discussion, he provides his students with content and then asks them to talk about their own experiences in the workplace dealing with the issue(s) they are studying.

Welsh says that he also has his students take the Implicit Association Test “as part of an initial opportunity to consider whether their hidden attitudes about things like race and gender align with the values that they possess.” He aims to provide students with examples of research in these areas.

“For example, students consider a case example about an assertive female entrepreneur and then see the data demonstrating that when her name changes to a male name she is rated as more likable by both men and women,” Welsh says.

“We also talk about steps that can be taken to address these issues. I bring up a fascinating example in which orchestras who started auditioning potential hires behind a screen in which physical characteristics remained unseen were able to remove some of the systematic biases by using a better process.”

According to Welsh, the focus on tackling social issues has taken a more prominent role within companies in recent years.

“There is an increasing expectation that organizations should not only focus on performance but also involve themselves in social issues,” he says. “Sometimes, this involvement is generally perceived favorably, whereas other times this involvement can be polarizing.”

By Andrew Clark