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Episode 10: Ethical dilemmas facing young workers

Girl making a decision

In this episode of Like Nobody’s Business, we discuss ethical dilemmas young people face early on in their careers. Associate Professor, Chris MacDonald, talks about his research into this topic and how hearing anecdotes from his students helped inspire him.

MacDonald also talks about ways he’s changing his teaching to help students better confront ethical issues in the workplace.

Ethical dilemmas facing young workers

Nadine Habib:

From the corner of Bay and Dundas in downtown Toronto, this is Like Nobody's Business, a podcast of thought leadership and business innovation. I'm your host Nadine Habib. Have you ever faced an ethical dilemma at work, or felt pressure from higher ups to sell a product not right for a customer? On today's episode of Like Nobody's Business, we speak with Chris Macdonald, associate professor at the Ted Rogers School of Management. He tells us about his research into ethical dilemmas young people face early on in their careers. We talk about the impact corporate culture has on new employees and how he's trying to change the classroom to better prepare students for their first job.

Hi Chris. Thank you so much for joining us on the show today.

Chris Macdonald:

My pleasure.

Nadine Habib:

So let's start off by you telling us a little bit about the research you're conducting into the ethical dilemmas in youth?

Chris Macdonald:

Sure. The research we're doing is technically on what we're calling early career employees, and that's basically, you could think of that as being 20 somethings, you could think of it as my students next year or the year after when they graduate. And the idea is, it's grounded in the intuition that young people face different ethical challenges in the workplace than senior people do. And a lot of what we teach in business ethics classrooms, and that's true in classrooms across North America, is we teach historical cases, cases that feature decisions made by senior executives. And so they don't necessarily prepare students terribly well for the decisions and challenges they're are going to face immediately upon graduation.

And so what we're working on now, is trying to gather evidence to back up what we think is true of the ethical experiences of junior employees. And so we started by doing a small scale pilot project that involved interviews with MBA students and now we're working towards doing a national workplace survey that asks people directly what kinds of challenges they're facing.

Nadine Habib:

Okay. Wow. And what was the inspiration to begin this research?

Chris Macdonald:

Well, the inspiration was basically anecdotes told to us by our students, right? So we have students who tell us either in class or one-on-one during office hours that they face ethical challenges in the workplace. Whether it's pressure to to sell people things they don't need, whether it's sexual harassment, whether it's pressure to discriminate against customers or against other employees based on gender or sexual orientation or looks. And what we wanted to do is to see, is to go beyond anecdotes. As researchers, we wanted a more robust data set than that. And so the idea is to take those anecdotes and now go beyond them to look at a broader range of experiences.

Nadine Habib:

And how do those early career years for recent graduates shape the rest of their working life?

Chris Macdonald:

Well, I think everybody recognizes that those early days are crucial. I mean, junior people, people in their first job, in their first few years are impressionable, they want to fit in. The thing they value most is they want to be part of a team because that's how they showed that they're going to add value to their workplace, by being a good team member. And so the worry is that in those early years, that's when they're being taught what's okay. Those informal norms, those informal standards, that aren't necessarily written down anywhere, right? The sort of things where people are tempted to say, "Well, it's okay because everyone does it." Or, "That's just how we do things around here." And my worry is that when someone is told that that's just how we do things around here and it involves something unethical, or in an ethical gray zone, they're going to carry that lesson throughout the rest of their career.

Nadine Habib:

And you've said that in most cases, people know the right thing to do, but they don't know how to do it. So how do you help students get to a place where they're comfortable addressing uncomfortable situations?

Chris Macdonald:

Well, that's an interesting question because one of the things I've told students in my ethics class for years and years is that, you know, one of the things, you never know in advance what someone's going to get out of out of a class. But one of the things they will get is they'll get an increased comfort talking about ethical issues because a lot of people are brought up thinking that ethical issues are something you don't talk about in polite company, or that it's somehow rude to question someone else's ethical beliefs. And I do my best to get them past that. I say, "Look, we're going to talk about this. If we're going to work together, if we're going to be part of the same institution, we need to be able to talk." We need to be able to say, look, you know, let's, let's think about what kinds of values we would be manifesting if we make this decision. And if you can't have that kind of open discussion, you're not going to do well at dealing with ethical challenges in the workplace.

Chris Macdonald:

So what we want to be able to give students is one, a familiarity with the standard issues, the issues that we know they're going to face. And then two, the comfort that comes from experiencing actually discussing them with other people.

Nadine Habib:

And so do you guys run through a situation where they would say, okay, you know what, let me take a step back and tell a boss this is how I feel about a situation?

Chris Macdonald:

Yeah, sure. I mean a couple of the things we are doing that we hope, you know out of this research. One is we're trying to develop new cases. We're developing case studies. Cases are very common in business education and in business edge ethics education, but we're trying to develop cases that speak directly to young people rather than have cases about older folks in senior executive positions. We want them to be reading and talking about cases that they can relate to so that when I say to them, "What do you think you would do in this situation?" It's not that hypothetical. If I asked them, you know, "What would you do if you were the CEO of a major bank and you faced this complex merger or acquisition that involved a conflict of interest?"

Well, my students will throw themselves into that role, but it's super hypothetical and it's not super realistic. Whereas if I say to them, you know, imagine your boss is pressuring you to sell a line of credit to an elderly customer who doesn't really need it and doesn't really understand it, what would you do? No, seriously what actual words would you say in that context? That's a much more realistic learning experience.

Nadine Habib:

And so you also said that your research is changing the way you teach in the classrooms with the different case studies that you're presenting to your class. So how is that influencing your teachings?

Chris Macdonald:

Yeah, I mean this is the kinds of things we're trying to do is we're trying to, you know, we've always used cases and we've always used discussion, but what we want now, is for all of the cases in discussion to be a much more carefully focused on the realistic challenges, or make them realistic conversations about challenges students are actually going to face. So it's a really good example we hope of how influence can change pedagogy, can change classroom experiences.

Nadine Habib:

And finally, what do you think needs to change in order to mitigate the influence of corporate culture on Canada's youth?

Chris Macdonald:

Well, I think a bunch of things. I mean corporate culture is just inevitable. I mean every, every corporation, every organization has a culture. And as I always tell my students, the culture of the place you work will change, it doesn't matter how robust you think you are, how strong you think your values are, the places you work will change you. And so, you know, the first thing we want to do is to be able to get students prepared for that idea mentally right? To know that the initial choices they make about the places they apply for jobs and the places they accept jobs are going to have an effect not just on their quality of life and the experience of working, but also on their values and who they are as a person.

nd so then the second thing we want is to get them prepared to have those discussions. Right? Because there will be pressured to go along to get along. There will be pressure to be a team player even when being a team player means violating your own values. And so we want students to be able to think and be proactive about engaging in conversations with coworkers where they can help shape the corporate culture in a positive way rather than just being steamrolled by it. And then of course in principle we'd like to work more with companies to help them shape their corporate cultures. And so that's why we've currently got a number of employers who are interested in talking with us about the results of this research because they know that they can do better at preparing their youngest workers for the kinds of pressures they'll face.

Nadine Habib:

And how our students reacting to these types of scenarios and situations?

Chris Macdonald:

It's really striking as an educator, you know, I've been teaching business ethics for 20 years now and I've never seen students' eyes light up the way they light up when give them an example that they recognize. So our students, most of my students already have job experience. Some of them are in Co-op, some of them have part time jobs or even even full time jobs. And the thing you see when you present them with a scenario that is realistic , you know, all the heads across the classroom start nodding and their eyes light up and they start paying attention because they know this is relevant. This is something that matters to them and it's something that's real to them.

Nadine Habib:

Like Nobody's Business is a presentation of Ryerson University's Ted Rogers School of management. For more information about TRSM, visit Ryerson.ca /TedRogersSchool. Thank you for listening.