Ethics background required: Students should be familiar with the four ethical frameworks presented in the first year curriculum (virtue ethics, deontology, utilitarianism, analogies). If they (or the professor) are not, brief summaries are provided in the activity section.
Subject matter referred to in this lab: Professional Ethics.
Placement in overall ethics curriculum:
- We recommend that this lab be used after the first year curriculum; however, this lab should be used whenever Professional ethics are discussed or can be extended naturally to the course content.
- Recommended previous labs: Foundational Labs
- Recommended follow-up labs: No direct follow-up labs.
Out of class: None, however adaptation for an online discussion is given below, along with an optional follow up assignment.
In class: 30 minutes.
Learning objectives: Students will
- Review or are introduced to professional ethics issues that could arise in their future workplace.
- Recognize that it is often difficult to respond correctly in the moment.
- Practice responding correctly to ethical issues.
Ethical issues to be considered: Professional ethics. May touch on issues such as correct use of resources, sexual harassment, discrimination, misreporting time worked, inadequate testing etc.
- Students are given familiar (non-professional) scenarios to consider both what a correct response would be, and why they may be tempted to respond “less than correctly.”
- An excerpt is read from the NY Times describing that what people know what they “should” do, in the moment we don’t “want” to look silly or lose friends or risk our jobs.
- Students review or are introduced to ethical issues that may arise in a professional environment.
- Students prepare themselves to deal with these issues, so that “in the moment” they will be more confident in their response and true to their character.
Preparation: Read through the entire lab. Think about examples from your own experience.
Possibly create a display (PowerPoint slide or other) of the ethical frameworks. Here is an example. You will also find this text in the activity section of this lab.
If this lab is to be presented online, this lesson is easily adapted to an asynchronous online environment where students would
- complete the assignment individually,
- then post some of their ideas while, and
- also respond to the ideas of others.
Optional follow up assignment
After this lab is presented in class, students are asked to search for a professional organization in their discipline and read about the professional ethics listed on the organization’s site. Then assign the following questions:
- What organization did you find?
- Which professional ethic listed do you feel that you already practice? Why? Give an example.
- Which professional ethic listed do you feel that you could practice as a student? Why?
- Was there anything listed that surprised you?
Below are a few links (at the time of writing) to help.
Guide for Instructors
Introduction (10 minutes)
The goal of this introductory exercise is to get students thinking about how hard it is to react correctly in the moment, and reasons why we may act in a way that is opposed to our character.
Scenario #1: Dent in Car
Ask students: If you put a dent in someone’s parked car with your own car, what should you do?
- They should leave their contact information on the car.
Discuss with students: What are some reasons that the person causing the dent would not leave a note?
Some answers might be:
- Fear of authority.
- No money.
- Fear of anger of the person whose car was dented.
- Didn’t know you were supposed to leave a note.
Scenario #2: Racist Jokes
Ask students: If you hear someone make a racist joke, what should you do?
- Suggest to the perpetrator that the joke is inappropriate.
Discuss with students: What are some reasons that a person might not do that?
- Lose friend group.
- People think that you are being “holier than thou.”
- You just can’t think quickly enough what to say.
Remind the students that while a person may value responsibility and respect for others, at times it can be difficult to take action that is consistent with their values.
Read: From the New York Times (“In Life and Business, Learning to Be Ethical” 2014)
When people predict how they’re going to act in a given situation, the ‘should’ self dominates — we should be fair, we should be generous, we should assert our values,” said Ann E. Tenbrunsel, a professor of business ethics at the University of Notre Dame who is involved in the EthicalSystems website. “But when the time for action comes, the ‘want’ self dominates” — I don’t want to look like a fool, I don’t want to be punished.
“Our survival instinct is to want to be liked and to be included,” said Brooke Deterline, chief executive of Courageous Leadership, a consulting firm that offers workshops and programs on dealing with ethical situations. “We don’t willfully do bad things, but when we’re under threat our initial instinct is to downplay or ignore problematic situations.”
Most people know the feeling: Something happens that we know is wrong and we mean to speak up or make it right. But we can’t quite figure out how to do it, and the moment passes. And then we justify that it was O.K. that we acted the way we did.
So how do we change this?
Like pilots who use flight simulators, people need to work on situations that cause them anxiety before they occur.
Activity (15 minutes)
Read or summarize to students: “We want to explore some situations that might give us anxiety and are associated with professional ethics in our future workplaces.”
Ask students to make a list of some unethical practices that could occur at work. (Post these where students can see them as the list is being made). Pull from your personal experience or from the list below to get students going.
Some unethical practices could be
- Recording hours that were not worked.
- Sexual harassment.
- Discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, religion, or race.
- Inadequate testing (of code or product) due to time constraints (especially where safety is an issue)
- Co-workers coming in on Monday hung over from a weekend of partying.
- Taking a longer lunch break to watch their child’s school play without asking or telling anyone.
- Padding expense reports on trips or including expense items that were “nice-to-have” purchases.
- Using significant company resources for personal use.
Spend some time talking about why these things could happen. For example, someone might record hours that were not worked because they do not want to lose their job, but have finished the work and really need to pick up a child from school.
Talk about how you might respond to these issues as a co-worker. Consider using one of the ethical frameworks in your response if it is appropriate. Recall the frameworks:
Virtue ethics: Does the behavior go against a virtue that you know that person holds? Examples of virtues are honesty, integrity, compassion, gratitude, perseverance etc.
- Example: I know that you are someone who values quality work and doing your best. I’ve noticed that you have been pretty tired lately and not feeling physically well, especially on Mondays. Is there something that you could do differently on the weekends?
Deontology: Is the behavior against a rule that is held by the company and could therefore result in job loss?
Analogies: Finding a similar situation where you believe that the perpetrator would more clearly see the unethicality of the situation
- Example: You know that joke that you have been telling where the IT person is the butt of the joke? What if an ethnic minority was the butt of the joke? Do you think it would be OK to tell?
Utilitarianism: Arguing the ethicality of a situation based on what is best for the majority
- Example: I’ve noticed that you have been pretty tired lately and not feeling physically well, especially on Mondays. For the first few hours of the day, several of your coworkers have had to cover for you because you’ve been away from your desk. Is there something that you could do differently on the weekends?
Reflection as a class (5 minutes)
Ask students to think about times when they have acted out of character or not reacted at all when they know that they should have. What were the triggers? Can they relate to any of the reasons for acting out of character? Provide an opportunity for students to speak up, but don’t force it.
An example from the world of professors might be to decide to give easier exams that don’t adequately test a student’s knowledge because you don’t want to get poor student evaluations.
An example for a student might be to share an answer with a friend because you don’t want to lose a friendship.
Encourage them to practice being aware of these triggers in everyday interactions.
Wrap up (Optional assignment)
Outside of class time, use the optional assignment to give the students an opportunity to learn what their discipline’s professional ethics are and reflect on how they may practice some of them. This can be followed with a short discussion next class, on a class discussion board, etc.
Provide three examples of unethical practices that could occur at work.
- Possible answers: using substantial company resources for person purposes, padding expense reports, discrimination, sexual harassment, working less hours than reported.
Name two reasons why someone would act differently in response to these unethical practices than they know they “should” act.
- Possible answers: fear for their job, don’t want others to see them as a “snitch,” wouldn’t know what to say.
Imagine that you are on a business trip with a colleague. Your company allows employees to get “deluxe” rooms, and pays for meals, but not for alcohol. You know that your colleague chose a cheaper room that comes with a special “wine and dine” package. In the end, it costs the company the same amount of money.
Would you say that your colleague is acting unethically? Support your conclusion based on one of the frameworks discussed in class.
- Unethical because it breaks company rules –- they are actually paying for the alcohol (uses deontology).
- Unethical because conflicts with the virtue of honesty – lying by omission.
Assume that you believe this is unethical behavior. How would you deal with it?
Remind your colleague that this is really against company policy and if they really can’t afford the wine, you’d be happy to buy them a bottle.
Suggest that they contact the employer and ask if they can make this trade.
“In Life and Business, Learning to Be Ethical.” 2014. New York Times.