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Adam Waytz, shown here during a lecture in Kellogg's Jacobs Center, partnered with Big Think to create an ethics training course.

Adam Waytz

When two rights make a wrong

In a new Big Think training course, Adam Waytz mines ethical gray areas to improve corporate decision-making

By Fred Schmalz

9/23/2014 - Putting to rest the old saw that business ethics can’t be taught, Adam Waytz, an assistant professor of management and organizations, has partnered with online knowledge forum Big Think to sharpen the ethical behavior of business leaders.

Going beyond “don’t lie, cheat or steal,” Ethics in Action focuses on what happens when two actions that would be seen as ethical on their own run up against each other. The seven-module course includes a series of scenarios, videos and quizzes on topics like “Loyalty vs. Fairness,” “Professional Duty vs. Personal Ethics,” “Speaking Truth to Power” and “Profit Maximization vs. Social Responsibility.”

“Given that many businesses at the turn of the 21st century have been viewed as undergoing ethical failures, the topic is timely,” Waytz says. “And given the nature of how quickly information moves, details about one's reputation are now more public — and easier to access — than ever before.”

The value of values

According to “Professional Duty vs. Personal Ethics” contributor Harry Kraemer '79, a clinical professor of strategy at Kellogg, ethical decision-making is consistent with maximizing shareholder value.

It’s a lesson he learned as former CEO of healthcare company Baxter International, where in 2001 he needed to navigate a crisis over a defective dialysis filter.

“As a publicly traded company, you clearly need to think about shareholder perspective,” he says. “If everything is done the right way, my philosophy is that doing the right thing will generate shareholder value, and it’s what my 50,000 team members around the world [at Baxter] expected us to do.”

“Now, when you say you want to do the right thing, what is ‘the right thing’?”

His advice for ethical leaders is “to take a lot of precautions, get the right people involved, assume the situation is a lot more serious than it is and take aggressive action."

Rebuilding trust

A goal of incisive actions like those Kraemer suggests is to develop — or rebuild — trust in the company. For businesses increasingly reliant on global collaboration, the establishment of trust is vitally important.

“This trust can only be ensured through displays of ethical behavior,” Waytz says. But how does that trust bridge cultural differences? Ethics in Action devotes a module to that topic as well.

Ethics in Action’s modules feed into a larger conversation about how decision-making influences the corporate health of organizations. Using ethical conundrums as learning models can help people pause and think when making similar decisions in their own companies.