January 11

Professors Publish Ethics Field Guide

Nathan is a new hire at a small tax practice. After a few months of work, his boss, Frank, calls Nathan into his office to discuss a client’s return. The client will need to pay an underpayment penalty of $50,000 to the state. Frank has a good relationship with the client, and in an effort to save that relationship, he asks Nathan to “fix” the return to show zero underpayment penalties. How should Nathan react?

This is one of the questions Brad Agle, George W. Romney Endowed Professor, and Aaron Miller, assistant teaching professor in the Romney Institute of Public Management, answer in their new book, The Business Ethics Field Guide. The guide, which was completed in August, shares thirteen common types of ethical dilemmas people face in the workplace and the tools necessary to face them.

Agle taught business ethics classes at the University of Pittsburgh from 1992 to 2009. Each semester, he assigned his MBA and executive MBA students to write about an ethical dilemma they had faced at work. After reading thousands of their responses, he started noticing patterns.

In July 2010, after Agle had been teaching at BYU for a year, he shared with Miller a list of the fundamental ethical controversies his previous students had written about. Miller suggested the research would be a great idea for a book. “Brad had a really fantastic idea to try to categorize the ethical dilemmas people face,” Miller says. “Other people have done similar things, but not quite in the way that he had in mind.”

In 2011, with the help of BYU’s Wheatley ethics_cover_3d_1024x1024Institution, the five-year journey of researching and writing the ethics guide began. Agle and Miller spent the next two years collecting and categorizing several hundred responses from BYU executive and full-time MBA students. As they read they found that every response could be categorized into at least one of the thirteen types of ethical dilemmas, including conflict of interest, loyalty, or unfair advantage.

After providing some help with the research, Bill O’Rourke, a retired Alcoa executive who was a frequent guest lecturer in Agle’s classes at the University of Pittsburgh and BYU, joined the team as a coauthor of the book. Agle knew O’Rourke’s career experience—including his time as the first president of Alcoa Russia— would be a valuable addition to the book. Along with helping write the book, O’Rourke contributed personal examples of ethical dilemmas he had faced in his career.

The authors believe their book stands apart from other works about ethics because it focuses on developing skills and not just on having a “good heart.”

“The message of our book is that ethical intentions are necessary but not sufficient; you also need to have ethical skills,” Agle says. “This book helps you develop those skills to be an effective ethical agent and leader in organizations.”