Students’ ethical thinking focus of college competition

By Todd Cohen

[Note: This was written for North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities.]

RALEIGH, N.C. — At Martin Marietta, an employee was terminated years ago after being found to have accepted gifts from a vendor, while another employee lost his job after admitting he had filled his personal vehicle with gas at a company pump.

“Violating our code of ethical conduct is a sure, automatic termination,” says Anne Lloyd, executive vice president and chief financial officer at the Raleigh-based company.

While actual cases of fraud are rare at Martin Marietta, which employs 7,000 people, the company in the past has terminated senior-level and long-tenured employees for violations of ethical and business conduct, Lloyd says, and employers everywhere should be vigilant in helping their employees avoid improper behavior.

Critical thinking for the real world – specifically, ethics in education — will be the focus of the fourth annual NCICU Ethics Bowl, which will be held February 6 and 7 at the Campbell University School of Law in Raleigh.

More than 100 college students from 20 of the state’s independent colleges and universities will participate in this year’s competition, which is a program of North Carolina Independent Colleges and Universities, the statewide office for the state’s 36 independent nonprofit colleges and universities.

“Students need to understand that corporate America values ethical behavior and appreciates the dilemmas that are often in the day-to-day actions that we take,” says Lloyd, who has served for four years as a member of the planning committee for the Ethics Bowl. Martin Marietta is one of over 20 corporate sponsors of the event.

Hope Williams, president of NCICU, says the organization created the Ethics Bowl to underscore the indispensable role that ethical thinking and actions play in daily life, and to give students an opportunity to develop the skills to recognize and analyze ethical issues quickly and work in teams to resolve them.

“Ethical thinking prepares students to be workers of high integrity, engaged citizens and responsible adults,” Williams says.

Business, government and foundation leaders serve as judges and moderators at the Ethics Bowl, which pits student teams against one another through four rounds of debate on ethical questions, including those the students have researched in advance, as well as a surprise question. Following the fourth round for all teams on Saturday, the most successful teams compete in two semi-final rounds, held concurrently, followed by a final round.

“It’s really teaching college students how to identify ethical issues, how to analyze them,” says Holly Wenger, director of ethics and compliance at Duke Energy and a judge in the final round of last year’s Ethics Bowl. “Those are the kind of people that Duke Energy wants.”

As it is at many companies, ethical behavior is a core value at Martin Marietta and at Duke Energy, which also is a sponsor of the Ethics Bowl. Spelled out in corporate statements, those two companies’ commitment to ethical behavior is the focus of orientation for new employees and ongoing training for all employees.

Charlotte-based Duke Energy also provides a hotline, administered by a third party, that its 28,000 employees can use to report ethical concerns — anonymously if the employees choose — about issues ranging from fairness and discrimination to whether to accept gifts from vendors, Wenger says. The company then investigates the concerns.

Duke Energy also encourages questions from employees and works with them to provide guidance on ethical issues.

Lloyd at Martin Marietta says a college class in business ethics she took as an elective for her major in accounting and finance was “probably closest to the way the real world works than any other classes I took.”

Corporations recognize that ethical issues represent a “gray area” in the business world and pose the challenge of “taking divergent views and coming to the right course of action for your company, your shareholders and all other stakeholders,” she says.

“It’s better to talk about it and express those differences and come to some agreement as to the course of action rather than keep it to yourself,” she says. “We all face those decisions every day. You have an ethical choice with almost every decision you have to make.”

In addition to the team competition, students participating in the Ethics Bowl will have the opportunity — during the competition and at a reception and dinner at the North Carolina Museum of History —  to meet corporate, foundation and government leaders from across the state who serve as judges and moderators for the competition.

“In today’s competitive global economy, organizations place a significant value on employees who can see and resolve the ethical questions they face in the workplace every day,” says Williams. “The Ethics Bowl reflects the broad effort by North Carolina’s independent colleges and universities to prepare students to think and act critically and responsibly.”

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