image title

CEOs call for people over profits but workers can face backlash for ethics

ASU professor studies how ethical whistleblowers can avoid bad consequences.
September 10, 2019

ASU professor's research finds ways for employees to address unethical practices without negative consquences

Should the mission of a company focus only on the bottom line? Maybe not. Recently, the Business Roundtable, a group of nearly 200 chief executive officers from American corporations, declared that the needs of people need to be considered along with profits.

The CEOs said that companies need to consider their responsibilities to customers and their employees, as well as the communities they inhabit. The group’s statement said that the new mission is a departure from the past, when delivering results to shareholders was considered to be paramount.

The statement has impact because it comes from the leaders of the companies — the CEOs.

Speaking up about ethical issues is an important leadership behavior, according to an Arizona State University professor who studies ethics in business.

Edward Wellman is an assistant professor of management in the W. P. Carey School of Business.

“We know from research that unless people speak up, cultures develop within organizations where unethical things become kind of normative and taken for granted,” said Edward Wellman, an assistant professor of management in the W. P. Carey School of Business.

Unfortunately, calling out unethical practices is hard to do, he said. Wellman answered some questions from ASU Now about business ethics:

Question: Is it hard for people to speak up when they see unethical behavior?

Answer: Yes. There are pressures in organizations to remain silent, particularly about ethical things. People don’t always respond very well when others call them out for being unethical. It puts people in a threatened and defensive frame of mind and they react to that, to protect themselves, by pointing fingers and blaming the person who speaks up.

Q: What happens when workers speak up?

A: A lot of my research in ethics has focused on the downside of personal consequences of speaking up. My first paper that was published at ASU looked at people we called “moral rebels.” These are people who noticed something they think is unethical, said something about it and actively refused to participate in the practice.

We did experiments where there was a hiring task that stereotyped minorities in an unfair way. We exposed people to a prior participant, who was a confederate in the study, who either spoke up about that unethical aspect of the task or just went along with the task.

They viewed the person who spoke up more negatively than the person who went along with the task. I think that was because they had already done the task and if they acknowledged that the person speaking up had a point, they were also acknowledging that they had been implicit in unethical behavior.

That negative relationship between speaking up and being perceived as a helpful, warm person was less when the person speaking up had a leadership position. So when leaders spoke up, they said, “All right this is someone doing something expected because they’re setting the ethical direction.” When it was a nonleader, people said, “This person is out of line.”

Not only did people see the ones who spoke up more negatively, they were more likely to sanction them by putting them down or withholding support in subsequent tasks.

So that was kind of a sad finding for me. I was hoping to see a positive effect when the person spoke up.

Q: So is it all bad news?

A: I have ongoing research now, where, finally, we’re seeing a positive result.

This is a study where we looked at similar behaviors — speaking up about things you feel are unethical — but we used a theory of “employee voice” and how people can speak up more generally about things they’re unhappy with in the workplace.

That breaks down into two ways people can speak up — a promotive type of voice where you’re making a proactive suggestion for improvement, and a prohibitive voice, where you’re pointing out a problem. To that, we’re adding a third type called inquiry voice, where you’re inquiring as to whether a problem might exist.

We find that people who engage in all three of those forms of voice are liked more and are more effective in addressing an ethical issue than people who just go along.

Our working hypothesis is that in prior studies, people didn’t just speak up, they also refused to participate in whatever the unethical thing was. We think that was the reason why they were viewed more negatively — people felt like it was their job to go along with the practice.

People don’t have problems with people who voice objections AND go along with whatever the thing is. There are conditions, we’re finding, under which people can speak their minds about unethical things and not suffer these consequences. In particular, the promotive way, in our initial results, seems to be the most effective way to do that.

So if you can frame your concern as a positive suggestion rather than a criticism or a complaint, that seems to be the most effective and safest way, even more than inquiry.

Q: What are the implications for a company?

A: One implication is being aware of the problem. There are expectations in companies that people should go along with the status quo.

Organizations can change those expectations but it requires intentionality on their part to come up with a culture where speaking up and raising ethical questions is valued and encouraged rather than seen as a negative or getting in the way of profits and efficiency.

Sometimes there’s a false dichotomy that people create in their heads — “If we’re ethical, we can’t be profitable.” I think the most successful companies realize that being ethical is the best way to be successful and profitable, particularly in the long run.

Q: Is this attitude ingrained?

A: I also teach negotiations, and this is something I run into with my students all the time. They feel that it’s impossible to be both ethical and a really good negotiator at the same time — that being a good negotiator by necessity requires lying and manipulating other people and trying to get them to do things they don’t want to do.

That’s one of my biggest challenges in teaching is getting them to realize that’s not the case at all. The best negotiators have integrity and behave in a way they can articulate as being ethical. They don’t lie. Being an effective negotiator involves persuading people that what you’re proposing really is in their best interest rather than manipulating them to do something that really isn’t in their best interests.

Q: What else can companies do?

A: What we found is that when organizations do things that are ethical, engaging in socially responsible activities, doing things that benefit their stakeholders, the environment or the communities they’re present in, that can increase the extent to which their employees go above and beyond to help the organization. So there’s a virtuous cycle that can build up where people look at what the organization is doing, feel good about being part of that organization, and as a result, are more motivated themselves to help the organization.

And we found it to be an enhancing effect when the employees worked in jobs they felt were meaningful and significant.

Q: What do you think of the Business Roundtable statement?

A: I totally agree with it. It’s important for everyone at all levels of an organization to feel that this is something they have a responsibility for. Ethics is an easy thing to kick the (can) on because you can say, “I have no choice — this is what my boss says to do.”

But that’s not how change happens. Change happens when someone says, “Are we sure this is the right thing to do?” Or, “I have a suggestion on how we can do this better.”

It’s fighting against making ethics someone else’s problem. It’s a cognitive shift.

Top image by Pixabay

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now


image title

Highly ranked for 'first-year experience,' ASU provides personalized support

Peer coaching, supports lead to ASU's high ranking for "first-year experience."
September 10, 2019

Peer coaching, chatbot help students new to ASU connect with resources

When Audrey Ruiz first came to Arizona State University, she was terrified.

“I was so intimidated by this huge public university,” she said.

“I had heard horror stories about how stressful and time-consuming college would be. But I wanted to make friends and go to football games and I wanted the whole experience.

“I was really nervous I wouldn’t be able to handle it all.”

Ruiz was assigned a peer coach at ASU’s First Year Success Center, and the one-on-one support made a huge difference. Her coach helped her break down her goals into manageable steps. Her main goal was to achieve a 4.0 grade point average.

“As the semester continued, I thought, ‘Maybe I can do this.’ And I did get a 4.0 and I still have a 4.0,” Ruiz said.

“And that motivation my coach gave me stuck with me and that’s why I wanted to be a success coach.”

Ruiz, now a senior political science major, is herself a peer coach in the First Year Success Center, helping first-year students find their footing. Students who are the first in their family to go to college, like Ruiz, are offered workshops and other supports. That coaching is just one way that ASU helps students who are new to campus — a philosophy reflected in the university’s ranking as No. 9 in the nation for “first-year experience” by U.S. News and World Report.

The “first-year experience” category is new this year and is based on peer surveys by the magazine, whose rankings were released Monday. The top 10 on the list are: Agnes Scott College, Elon University, University of South Carolina, Berea College, Georgia State University, Appalachian State University, Amherst College, Baylor University, and Arizona State University, which tied with Abilene Christian University for ninth place. Among public schools, ASU ranked fourth.

U.S. News and World Report has also named ASU as the most innovative university all five years the category has existed. The widely publicized annual rankings compare more than 1,500 institutions on a variety of metrics.

That innovation translates directly to the first-year experience of ASU students.

Before they even arrive on campus, incoming students meet Sunny, the ASU chat bot. Sunny was created to answer questions from newly admitted Sun Devils via text messaging, and then was expanded to interact with first-year students too. It is one of many examples of the supportive community students encounter, one designed to make sure they are able to balance academics with what Ruiz describes as “the whole experience.” 

Sunny’s text messages “nudge” students, particularly in the early weeks of a semester. For example, a student who has missed classes might get a text from Sunny that says: “I’m checking in to see how it’s going because your professor let me know you haven’t been attending class. … I know the first few weeks can be overwhelming but I also know that you can do this.” Then students are prompted to respond whether they plan to attend the next class, and if not, they receive a prompt to contact their adviser.

Sunny also connects students to other resources, such as Sun Devil Fitness and ASU Counseling Services.

In their first days on campus, the students’ experience kicks off with ASU’s welcome week, a universitywide celebration that immerses students in the spirit, pride and tradition unique to ASU. An integral component of that week is Sun Devil Welcome, the only time the entire class will be together before graduation. The pep rally-style event allows incoming students to hear directly from Michael Crow, ASU’s president, and begin to experience all that student groups have to offer. 

First-year Sun Devils also are enrolled in a seminar course called ASU 101. Students learn time-management and academic integrity, but are also introduced to the values of the university, including its focus on sustainability and entrepreneurship. ASU 101 teaches all entering freshmen best practices to be academically successful in college.

The university has created residential communities in which students in individual schools live together. Administrators say this allows college staff, some of whom live in the halls themselves, to know where their students are and help keep them on target if their grades start to slip. 

The residential communities have communal study areas, creating an atmosphere of academic support close to home. Some also have exercise facilities and digitally enhanced classrooms. 

“Our goal is to have every student become part of a smaller community,” said Frederick Corey, vice provost for undergraduate education. “We provide ample opportunities for them to do so.” 

The first-year peer coaching program that was so beneficial to Ruiz is available to freshmen, sophomores and transfer students. It is done face to face, but also is offered by phone or on a Zoom video chat; allowing students the option to use their devices is critical to providing support.

"Today’s college students are growing up in a digitally connected world, which interestingly creates increased feelings of isolation,” said Lisa McIntyre, executive director for Student Success Innovation in the Office of the University Provost.

“In response to this growing trend, ASU is looking for new ways to create digital experiences that encourage engagement and foster feelings of belonging to the ASU community. Early evaluation suggests that our efforts are having a positive impact on students’ first year experience,” she said.

ASU builds connections through technology in other ways as well. The ASU Mobile App provides relevant, personalized content, such as reminders of important deadlines and tips on how to thrive in the first year.

ASU Adulting 101 is a blog and Instagram handle (@ASUAdulting101) where first-year students glean advice from peers and campus experts. The blog offers real-world tips on topics like how to use a credit card, how to make friends and what, exactly, “adulting” is.

ASU also supports first-year students in the classroom. Project LEAD is a curriculum that uses project-based learning to build skills such as teamwork, self-care and communication that students will need to succeed in college. Cohorts of 20 to 40 selected students study together as a community and get advice from peer mentors.

Some first-year students make connections even before classes start. Summer programs ease adjustment to campus life and build relationships with friends and mentors. The university offers bridge programs for American Indian students as well as for young people who have experienced foster care.

Djuan Porter, a junior majoring in theater in the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts, also is a peer coach, and said that his own first-year coach taught him to give himself a break.

“I was terrified because I set so many expectations for myself,” he said.

“But he helped me get to the root problem of how I was being a lot harder on myself than I needed to be.”

Porter said that the coaches are taught that it’s natural for overwhelmed students to jump to the worst-case scenario.

“But you have to challenge that, and we help you leverage what you are truly afraid of,” he said. “What are the things you can do and what are the things you don’t have control over?”

Both Ruiz and Porter said that joining organizations were helpful in making them feel at home during their first year. Porter was able to represent his housing community in the Residential Housing Association and helped to organize a successful end-of-semester event.

“It was a great moment for me because for so long I was worried about not fitting in or not being accepted because with being an open LGBT individual, there was always that fear,” he said. “It sparked a wave where the people around me made a support system and I wanted to do that for other people.”

Mary Beth Faller

Reporter , ASU Now