Ethics can be complex, to be sure. But ethics start with the individual — and what he or she says and does — each and every day.

“A lot of times, people think about ethics as these huge, great, big acts, and what they are is, each of us making tiny acts in our world and in our actions and in our words that shape the trajectory of a curriculum and the culture of an organization,” said Catharyn Baird, CEO of EthicsGame, a trademarked curriculum to help students recognize core ethical frameworks; the strengths and weaknesses of their own ethical preferences; and to identify, navigate, and optimally resolve ethical tensions.

Paulette Stenzel (left) and Catharyn Baird. Photo by Omar Sofradzija

Paulette Stenzel (left) and Catharyn Baird. Photo by Omar Sofradzija

Baird said individuals “do make a difference. Words make a difference. Actions make a difference,” as does an understanding of one’s ethical blind spots: “When our backs are against the wall, if we haven’t paid attention to how we use power, how we use privilege, and how we manage fear … our chances of making ethical mistakes are very much higher than if we pay attention to those shadow spots.”

Baird met with around 400 students in October to work on ethics exercises as part of a renewed focus on ethics at the Eli Broad College of Business. Starting this semester, EthicsGame activities are part of General Business and Business Law (GBL) 385: Business Law and Ethical Leadership, a required business class.

“I hope it’s going to position them to be very careful when they choose employment, and when they get into the workplace, to be able to check in with themselves, know their weak spots, and be able to behave according to their own values when they hit ethical dilemmas; and first of all, recognize an ethical dilemma,” said Professor Paulette Stenzel, coordinator for Business Law and Ethical Leadership.

Without that foundation, “we can be on autopilot and not even realize the roads we’re heading down, in terms of making choices that might not be in tune with our own ethics and the core values of the organization for which the person is working,” Stenzel said.

From the exercises, Stenzel said she hoped students would “get a good deal of reinforcement of what they’ve been learning in the classroom, and then something more to think about in terms of understanding one’s own values, putting one’s self in the place of others to understand their values, and something to carry with them not only throughout their classes in the Broad College, but in the rest of their careers, because we’re constantly … seeking ethical maturity.”

EthicsGame activities included:

  • The Ethical Lens Inventory, which helped students identify their own value systems, and to see the strengths and weaknesses of their own systems;
  • Merger Madness, which helped students understand how their values compare to and contrast with those of others.

This fall’s exercises included a heavy done of contemporary issues. “We’re looking at it through the lens of the ‘Me Too’ movement, harassment, and what little, tiny behaviors each of us can make and actions we can take to make this world a better place,” Baird said.

Baird has also seen a shift in recent years in how men and women interact with each other in the business workplace.

“When I first became an attorney 30 years ago, 40 years ago now, we had a cone of silence around anything around sexual harassment. Now, we’re saying that’s no longer acceptable,” said Baird, adding that her session with students was “an opportunity to take a look at how change happens in moments of time that have happened throughout history, and trying to see when it’s going to happen next.”

The move toward a stronger ethical emphasis at the Broad College has been building for some time. Stenzel said the college moved from using a common textbook to teach ethical leadership, to the creation of a leadership speaker series, to the use of EthicsGame activities in some honors courses, to now.

“It’s been important, but it’s more important now. And over the past five years, we’ve been taking major steps toward making sure the students have this common experience,” said Stenzel. “We’re working really hard in the Broad College to step it up, and I expect every year from here on out we’ll have even more continuity of discussion in the other classes in the college, because once everybody has this groundwork in term of common reading materials, the ethical leadership series, and use of the EthicsGame, they’ll all have something to carry into their classes in accounting and marketing, supply chain management, so they share something that can then come into the classroom in their specific discipline.”

There were related activities leading up to Baird’s visit. “We’ve had students who have used our EthicsGame content in their classes, so they’re coming with some understanding of their own ethical perspective, their own ethical blind spots, and they’re coming with some experience around the simulations,” she said. “This is to reinforce that learning.”