Olson teaches students that ethics is a daily concern

On the first day of class, most of Steve Olson's students in the MBA "Ethics and Business" course expect to study in detail the horror stories related to business ethics: the exploding Ford Pinto, the faulty O rings that led to a NASA space shuttle explosion, the Dow Corning breast implant case.

"A lot of the way that business ethics is routinely taught is by looking at the big disasters," said Olson, a research and program associate in the Ethics Center who also serves as instructor for the business ethics course. "By the time an organization has gotten to that problem, it's clear that they haven't been able to address all the other daily things that lie ahead of it. I say to them, let's work on those daily things so that when the big issues do hit, we have the means and ability and experience of being ethical on the daily things. We will be much more likely to be able to resolve the big crisis issues ethically if we have been resolving the day-to-day things first."

Making business ethics real

Although Olson has taught or co-taught the course several times, this semester marks the first time he has tried to convey the importance of daily ethical decision-making through the use of a volunteer project. As part of their coursework, students have been working three hours per week at Boulevard House, a 90-day transitional shelter for homeless families located in Grant Park. The students serve as volunteer management consultants, learning about the shelter's operations and assessing its assets and needs, then developing and implementing management programs to enhance the shelter's services. Students also are required to keep a reflection journal about their experiences at Boulevard House, and compile a portfolio that includes a final paper.

"The first day of class I had 29 students," Olson said. "The second day, after I had explained to them what we were going to be doing, there were 10. That's never happened before, and it did cause something of a stir in the business school. But the students I ended up with, 11 in all, are just fantastic."

Olson said the class has already had discussions around a number of intangible ethical issues that would be almost impossible to raise in a case study. "These issues are so real and they seem to be from everybody's work experience," he said, "issues like the boundaries of public and private life, how much do you divulge, where do you draw the line?"

Another issue the students are dealing with is juggling the various aspects of their lives, Olson said. Many students wanted to give more time to their shelter family, but found it difficult to balance that with other school work and their personal lives. "Juggling all these things is an ethical issue," Olson said. "I ask them whether the organization helps them with that."

In an unexpected twist, the students voted last week to break their contract with Boulevard House. Olson said the students felt that Boulevard House was not providing the kinds of learning opportunities cited in the original learning contract and that the students' management recommendations, which would have been included in a final report, would not have been heeded. Although Olson is disappointed that the students will not complete their final six weeks at Boulevard House, he feels they probably learned more about the complexities and quagmires of management consulting and non-profit organizations than if the course had come off without a hitch. "Most of the students said they learned more from this experience than from two years of business school," he said. Olson intends to use the same basic framework for the course again, with some modifications.

Best of both worlds

Olson, who joined the Ethics Center staff nearly two years ago when Jim Fowler was named director, previously was a student in Emory's Graduate Division of Religion. He holds a master's degree in religious studies from Yale; he was a double major in philosophy and history at Calvin College. Working in the business ethics field was not what Olson saw himself doing during his student years.

"At one point I thought I was going into the ministry," Olson said. "In fact, I even enrolled at Calvin Seminary. I lasted about two weeks. I realized that I just wasn't a parish kind of guy. There's a lot of politicking, and it takes a lot of things that I'm really just not that interested in doing."

When Olson reapplied to graduate school, he realized that he wanted to teach. "I think I always wanted to teach," he said. "I come from a teaching family."

Teaching business ethics has given Olson the chance to combine his erstwhile desire to enter the ministry with his desire to teach. That dimension of his work at Emory was clearly demonstrated on the first day of this semester's business ethics class, when one of the students asked what the syllabus he had just outlined had to do with business ethics.

"I thought to myself, `Have I been that unclear?' I know that everybody thinks of business ethics as something different. Some think of it as business law. For me, it really is the day-to-day treatment of your people, of all your stakeholders: your employees, your employer, your environment, your customer, your buyer, your distributor, your stockholders. You're interacting with these people, some of them every day. How do you treat them? What's the nature of the relationship? What's the nature of the impact that our actions have on them? We tend to notice ethics when things break down, and that's why one of the students was asking about studying the disasters. And we do a little of that. But my goal is to attend to the real day-to-day ethics of the organization and see if we can find a way to achieve what it is we really want on a daily basis."

--Dan Treadaway

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