Competing To Be the Best in Business Ethics


A columnist draws optimism from her experience as a judge in the International Business Ethics Case Competition.

by Gael O’Brien

Current undergraduate and graduate students have grown up, like others, with the norm of corporate ethics scandals occurring regularly. In October of last year, for example, Goldman Sachs Group admitted breaking U.S. corruption laws. Evidence indicated senior executives “ignored warning signs of fraud.” The cost of not noticing? Likely financial penalties over $5 billion.

I’m hopeful current college students will become the generation of employees and leaders who notice – who recognize ethical vulnerabilities, analyze and collaborate on effective solutions before a crisis. My optimism stems from the International Business Ethics Case Competition (IBECC) continually modeling these skills. Each April, I step into its inspiring experiential learning environment to judge student presentations.

IBECC’s uniqueness emanates from its big purpose developed by founder Thomas White and framed by his conversations with Fortune 500 leaders. The alignment of business and ethics is a leadership journey. IBECC competitions provide teams with rigor, tools, experiential learning and practice, feedback and discovering leadership strengths to support ethical outcomes.

Big Purpose

I asked White, also IBECC’s executive director, what inspired his creating IBECC. The first seeds began early in his teaching career: he wanted to help students learn how to operate in business and promote ethical actions. As he didn’t know what skills new business hires lacked, he contacted several senior managers at Fortune 500 companies. He asked each of them: “What are the skills I can teach my students to have a leg up and be successful in business.” The consensus was new hires were weak in three key areas:

  • working on teams;
  • communication skills, especially platform skills; and
  • meeting competing responsibilities and demands.

With that feedback, White, created a new business ethics course where students developed solutions to ethical problems businesses were experiencing. The course morphed into a business ethics case competition and then evolved into IBECC, with graduate and undergraduate teams from all over the U.S. and many countries. Part of IBECC’s DNA is a charity event involving teams in giving back each year.

Nearly 25 years later, IBECC’s foundational skills are ones still lacking in most graduates and remain qualities employers want.

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So far, more than 1500 students from 115 colleges and universities have participated in IBECC.  There are now three competitions: the original 25-minute full presentation, a 10-minute ethics-only presentation and a 90-second scenario of speaking out. For teams and judges, the website’s how-to videos, videos of past competitions and resources including the three competitions’ guidelines simplify how things work. Teams can even see the form judges use to evaluate the full presentation. Students step into business roles (generally consultants except for the third competition) and judges, in real life, have business backgrounds in ethics and other fields.

Teams in the 25-minute presentation attempt to offer a convincing, workable ethical solution to a company’s ethical problems supported by the team’s legal, financial and ethical analyses. Judges ask questions boards would ask. It’s exciting when a team’s preparation rises to meet any question. Judges then provide feedback as themselves on the presentation’s strengths and vulnerabilities. As an uber judge, I’m assigned a division of teams. However, judges can evaluate presentations with topics aligned with their own background or interests.

Uber judges go it alone evaluating the 10-minute and 90-second presentations. Identifying winners can be hard, but I look for those whose solution or approach is more reasoned, impactful and convincing. The 10-minute presentation offers practice in succinct, compelling, bottom-line content and delivery advocating support for the recommended ethical solution. The 90-second is a workplace scenario where an employee speaks up when a problem being discussed ignores the ethical aspect. Capturing attention, interest and openness to more information is the goal.

The Power of Practice

I asked Justin Goodkind, an IBECC judge this year, if participating in IBECC as an undergraduate and MBA student had influenced his career. (He and his teams won both competitions.) Goodkind, Director of Partnerships and Solutions at Cognito, said IBECC gave him practice in learning how to speak up when something didn’t seem right.

Goodkind shared an example of when he was working in sales for a previous employer that announced and promoted some products that didn’t work. He sent an email to the CEO identifying the problem, indicating he felt there was an ethical obligation to customers not being met. He asked what the CEO thought about it. The CEO met with him, took the concerns seriously and made some changes, addressing the problem at the company’s monthly meeting. Goodkind emphasized the importance of developing skills to identify problems and practicing how to react in productive ways to create meaningful change.

The Ethics and Business Connection 

White, who is Conrad N. Hilton Chair in Business Ethics Emeritus at Loyola Marymount University, encourages students to develop a basic feel for a secular, rational, philosophical approach to ethics –and to talk about it in common-sense business language. To facilitate teams and judges being on the same page, he created a 34-minute video which highlights universal principles to evaluate actions: “do no harm” and “treat others appropriately” (according to human needs for fairness, kept promises etc.).

For leaders and employees, ethical overconfidence is a challenging barrier to seeing and addressing ethical problems early. Research indicates we aren’t as ethical we think we are. Up to 90% of us are overconfident about our self-awareness which cues insights into our integrity, limitations, and biases. IBECC teams are practicing developing workable solutions to ethical issues so relevant to a company’s problems that leaders, ethically overconfident or not, will see value.


Teams leave the classroom behind. They assume business roles, practice living the part, develop actionable impactful solutions to ethical problems and work to sell them. These are not skills most have used before. Judges’ feedback on approach, content and presentation skills, relevant to the presentation, are also helpful to team members when they are in a work environment.

I’ve only had one experience in 11 years where a team was troubled by receiving feedback that included suggestions for improvement. A team member sought me out after their presentation to explain they were top students who’d excelled at everything they’d done. I talked with him about why feedback beyond praise matters in IBECC and careers.

Their presentation wasn’t the strongest in their division and they didn’t win. The student found me after the awards program, asking if I’d talk with his team as they were very upset. What I saw on their troubled faces wasn’t arrogance. It was fear. They were seniors about to graduate who’d never experienced what they considered failure. They had no experience working hard and not being considered the best. Even though it was their first time at IBECC and they did well, their frustration and disappointment were palpable. We talked together for a long time.

Experiential learning experiences can’t tell us in advance what we’ll discover about ourselves. Some teams come to IBECC discovering strengths and confidence they didn’t know they had. Others are excited and inspired by what they’ve accomplished (win or not). And still others may consider later that what they learned helped them make better transitions into their careers and future leadership.

IBECC participants launch themselves on the path connecting business and ethics. It’s a path of learning and practicing to support aligning their business skills with ethical awareness so they can do things that matter in companies.

Gael O’Brien is a catalyst in leaders leading with purpose and impact through clarity, presence and connection. She is an executive coach, culture coach, speech coach and presenter. She publishes The Week in Ethics and is also a Business Ethics Magazine columnist, a Kallman Executive Fellow, Hoffman Center for Business Ethics at Bentley University, and a Senior Fellow Social Innovation, the Lewis Institute at Babson College.


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