By Edward Shore
Ethics Unwrapped is an initiative of the McCombs School of Business that fosters meaningful discussion about business ethics through engaging, research-based short videos. The program draws inspiration from Mary Gentile’s book, Giving Voice to Values, which teaches business students how to stand up for their values when their boss, customers, or shareholders pressure them to do the opposite. The videos, produced by UT filmmaker Cara Biasucci, have greatly improved students’ ability to recognize ethical dilemmas in the classroom and to respond to them effectively. Ethics Unwrapped addresses more than the thirty subjects, including “conflicts of interest,” “conformity bias,” “incentive gaming,” “loss aversion,” and “over-confidence bias.” The video series features UT students, who share insights from their own lives and offer strategies for tackling ethical dilemmas. In addition to short videos, Ethics Unwrapped produced a half-hour documentary, In It To Win, about the rise and fall of former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and plans to release a new series of 51 animated clips. Thinking in Public caught up with project director Cara Biasucci, who underscored the importance of teaching business ethics through engaging public scholarship.
Ethics Unwrapped encourages viewers to respond to values conflicts in their own lives by rehearsing a plan of action ahead of time, as discussed in Mary Gentile’s book, Giving Voice to Values. What does “giving voice to values” entail and could you offer an example?
A simple example from one of our videos that would be relatable to students… Imagine you work as a barista at Starbucks and you just ran out of the premium coffee. The manager says to you, “Oh it doesn’t matter, give them the regular coffee, and charge them for the premium. They’ll never know the difference.” You’re essentially being asked to lie, and you’re being told to lie by the person who is your supervisor! If you apply the Giving to Voices (GVV) strategy, you would think about what values of yours are in conflict and what values you share with your manager. Honesty and integrity come to mind, for example. Then, you would prepare a speech to make your case to your supervisor, and rehearse it several times in front of the mirror before delivering it.
You might say something like this:
“Yesterday when you asked me to serve the inferior coffee as the premium coffee and charge the same price for it, I felt very uncomfortable. Honesty and integrity are important to me, and I know that Starbucks values integrity in the workplace, too. I think there could be another way to approach this if we run out of the premium coffee again. Would you be willing to brainstorm this or change XYZ…” and then you list options. Basically, the idea is to identify what your values are and to know which of those values are in conflict in the situation. It’s also important to identify the universal or shared values that you can appeal to in others. Then, rehearse your position, offer solutions if you can, and share your thoughts with those involved. GVV is often a positive step in conflict resolution; we bring our problem-solving mind to the table instead of a complaining attitude.
2) What are the benefits of using short documentaries for teaching ethics in business school?
There are many advantages to teaching ethics with video, and not just for business students. One of the things we recognize is that “Generation Z’ers” spend a significant amount of time on screens, more than 52% of their time, and they are often looking to be entertained, not just educated, but entertained in the classroom. Using short documentaries allows you to “speak in the native tongue” of this generation—media is their preferred format—and you can bring outside experiences into the classroom in the form of first-person narrative through video.
Part of what the research shows is that ethics is really integrated in a meaningful way in our lives through peer-to-peer conversation, through discussion about ethics with our friends and peers. Arguably, it’s more impactful for students to hear other students in the videos talk about their own experiences with ethics, than it is to have a professor lecture students about what is or isn’t ethical. There is some skepticism, shall we say, in the younger generation regarding the “voice of authority.” The way our videos are created, we’re feeding students the expert content without the talking head “voice of authority.” So, what you see on screen are students sharing their real life examples interspersed with animated segments that relate ethics concepts. In addition, the videos are entertaining and engage students in the subject matter in a more intimate and fun way than they’d experience by simply reading a textbook.
3) What are some of the qualities of effective short films?
—Short! That’s one. (Laughs). I think staying on point, too. That sounds obvious, but it’s a fine balance to get enough information across without belaboring any one point. I think storytelling is a huge part of what makes short film effective, too. Is there story telling happening, rather than just information being shared? And, of course, high quality video production is important with this media savvy generation. Poor quality video or audio can be distracting and the content can be easily dismissed. Also, I think mixing genres and visual styles to create unique formats can work well for short films. We’ve mixed animation with documentary interviews, creating a fresh new style in educational films. Of course, having engaging interviews is crucial, as is finding interesting students with relevant stories to tell.
4) What role do students play in the production and development of the video series? How have they responded to the films in class?
I interview undergraduate and graduate students for many of the films. Student workers help me on some of the post-production work and maintain our social media channels, too. I’ve hired two recent UT Austin graduates to work full time on the program. One stayed for two years, and then went on to teach English in South Korea. Her replacement has been working with me for the last 18 months on an animated series that we will release in February.
Students have responded favorably to our videos. About 8,600 undergrads were surveyed on our campus over the course of the last five semesters, and the surveys showed that 90% of students found the videos helpful to understanding and learning ethics concepts. Before watching the videos, a little more than half of the students were not confident in their ability to identify an ethics concept or explain it, make an informed decision about it, etc. But after watching the videos, 78% of those who were not confident initially, became confidence in their ability to identify an ethics concept, discuss it, and make an informed decision about that concept.
5) I really enjoyed the short film, “In It To Win,” detailing the rise and fall of disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. How did the film come together and what can Abramoff’s story teach us?
A student on campus wanted to bring Abramoff to UT Austin to speak to their student group. This was back in early 2012. Abramoff was recently released from prison and was still on parole, I believe. The student reached out to Abramoff to inquire if he would be interested in coming to campus to share his experience, and then the group started looking for other people on campus who might also be interested in Abramoff’s visit. They somehow found me, and then I got in touch with Abramoff. I was in the process of finishing our first Concepts Unwrapped videos which explained behavioral ethics concepts—the biases and pressures that cause us to act unethically usually without our conscious awareness—and I thought that maybe Abramoff’s personal story would be a good example of behavioral ethics in action. Like many UT Austin students, Abramoff was a bright, motivated college student, a former athlete, extremely involved in the Young Republicans, well-respected, and so on. I was curious to learn how he went so far astray in the years between college graduation and ending up in prison. I spoke to Abramoff a couple of times on the phone. I told him about Ethics Unwrapped and the educational goal of the program. I asked if he’d be wiling to participate in a series of conversations and do a studio interview with us to create a documentary for Ethics Unwrapped. I let him know that he wouldn’t have any editorial control, and that I wanted to use his example as a case study—a documentary case study—where we explored one person’s life and extracted from it the different behavioral ethics biases that factored into the actions he took, the decisions he made, how he thought about things, etc. His story had major consequences, and In It To Win: The Jack Abramoff Story shows how the biases and pressures he faced factored into that story. Of all the people I’ve ever interviewed, Abramoff was the quickest thinker on his feet—politics and all the rest of what he did aside—he is clearly very bright, very passionate, and very articulate.
6) Why do you think teaching business ethics is important, both in the classroom and as a public scholarship project?
I think it is critical to teach business ethics. To teach ethics no matter the discipline, I should say. Ethics is not only applicable to business, but it is clearly applicable there, and clearly there is a need for incorporating ethics in business education. All you have to do is read the newspaper to know this. Ethical lapses occur not only business, but in NGOs, government agencies, academia, politics, medicine, etc. The list goes on. We fail to live up to our own ethical standards in all kinds of ways, and in all kinds of work.
It’s critical for students to be aware of the psychological biases and the organizational and social pressures that can adversely influence their ethical decision-making. The first step to making better ethical choices is to learn about the ways you are susceptible to making poor ethical choices. If you are aware of biases and other factors, you may see the warning flag flash before your eyes. Concepts Unwrapped teaches you about these biases and pressures so you can be on the lookout for them. Giving Voice to Values gives you the tools to practice the skills you need to speak up when you know that something isn’t right. We want students going into business, science, healthcare, history, teaching, public relations, performing arts, etc., to be prepared when facing ethical dilemmas. We all face ethical dilemmas every day. We just don’t recognize them, many times. Ethics Unwrapped is hopefully a way to make students aware of the various ethical challenges they will face and empower them to make good ethical decisions.
As a public scholarship project, all of the educational resources we create for Ethics Unwrapped are aimed at raising moral awareness and promoting ethical decision-making. Everything we produce is freely available on our website. In February, we’re releasing a new series, Ethics Defined, which is an ethics glossary with 51 short animated videos. The videos are 1-2 minutes each and explore ethics terms and concepts such as deontology, utilitarianism, diffusion of responsibility, ethics, morals, conformity bias, in-group/out-group, groupthink, etc. The new series is part of an educational campaign (#EthicalLeadership) that we’re launching with the Center for Leadership and Ethics at McCombs. The hope is that people will use Ethics Defined to educate themselves about ethics, to be informed about ethics, so that we can have a more thoughtful and productive discourse in our country in general. To share a vocabulary, a common ethics vocabulary, is important to that conversation. And, it’s vitally important that we are all aware of the ways in which we fall prey to biases and pressures and fail to live up to our own ethical standards. If we can achieve those things, then we have an opportunity for more insightful and constructive conversations and we’ll be able to articulate more clearly when we see things that aren’t right in our world.