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 Teaching Ethics

Alan Roline professor and head of the
Department of Accounting
The Lockheed Martin Ethics Challenge Game

The Ethics Challenge: Using "Game" Theory

Labovitz School of Business and Economics professor Al Roline likes to encourage discussion of ethics in his class Law and Ethics for Financial Professionals. He believes that it is important to expose students to ethical dilemmas that they may soon face in the workplace. The problem Roline faced was how to teach ethics in a way that truly engaged his students and made the lessons memorable. Oddly enough, Roline found his answer in a board game, “The Ethics Challenge" featuring DilbertTM and DogbertTM.

Let's Play the Ethics Challenge

In 2006, Roline read a student’s review of the book Ethics at Work: Creating Virtue at an American Corporation by Daniel Terris. This book explored Lockheed Martin Corporation’s search for a way to teach ethics to their employees. Their initial ethics program was, according to Terris, "dull and preachy," until then-CEO Norm Augustine got the idea to create an ethics board game using characters from the DilbertTM cartoon strip and actual ethical dilemmas faced by Lockheed employees. With that, the game was developed.

Each year, the game was updated and scenarios changed to keep things fresh. The game was a hit. Not only were employees spending time each year hashing over ethical challenges, they were having fun doing it. Roline began to wonder if this approach could work with his ethics class. When he read a game scenario involving an accountant in Lockheed’s tax department, he had what he later described as “one of those ‘A-HA!’ moments.”

Roline found a near-mint “Ethics Challenge” game on eBay and purchased it for about $20. After he reviewed the game, he decided that, rather than re-use or update Lockheed's scenarios himself, he'd have his students take on that role. He asked students to conduct research into ethical dilemmas faced by accountants and talk to family members or friends about ethical challenges that they had come across in their careers, not only in accounting, but also at financial firms or in small businesses.

Initially Roline had students write up their scenarios into "Case Files" like the original game had used. Last semester, however, after watching the UMD Library Video Contest winning entry UMD Cribs by Jacob Strassman and Matt Moline, Roline asked his students to videotape case files that the class could watch and then discuss. The results were funny, smart, and engaging videos that sparked laughter and debate.

What Would Dilbert Do?

The videos the students created were as varied as the ethical problems they presented. One, entitled Bad Day at the Office, was a clever take off on the popular television show The Office. In this clip, Hannah, the intern, was asked by her boss (who drinks from a “World’s Best Boss” coffee mug ala Michael Scott of Dunder-Mifflin) to revise her report and defer some expenses until next quarter “otherwise the CEO won’t like it.” Hannah’s boss suggested that doing so could very well lead to full-time employment for Hannah.

At the end of the video, students were presented with various courses of action that Hannah could take, some of which were better than others. The various options were there to spur discussion in the classroom. For this scenario, calling the company’s ethics hotline was deemed to be the best course of action for Hannah. The worst answer, affectionately referred to as the "Dilbert" answer, was “Hannah goes to the bar and drinks her problems away with Jim Beam and Jack Daniels.”

One video, in the style of an old silent movie complete with ragtime piano soundtrack and subtitles for dialogue, dealt with falsifying transaction dates. Another video was a take off on The Twilight Zone and was entitled The Fraud Zone. Shredding sensitive client documents, falsifying billing time and pocketing money intended for a client dinner were all issues that students took on.

Game Plan

Roline has been pleased with the students response to his Ethics Challenge assignment. “Discussion of the various outcomes is the most important part of the process,” Roline said. Feedback from students has been generally very positive (except that students are often initially afraid that their video editing skills may not be up to the task). In a survey, one student noted, “ethics turned out to be not such a black-and-white issue like we assumed it to be.” Another student called the Ethics Challenge “fun and educational.”

The Ethics Challenge is definitely a tool that Roline will continue to use. Fraud and ethics violations continue to make headline news. Teaching students more about ethical expectations in business and making them aware of common ethical dilemmas they may face in their careers will, no doubt, help them make better decisions when the scenarios are real and the stakes are high.

Written by Kathleen McQuillan-Hofmann,

UMD home page editor, Cheryl Reitan,
NEW RELEASES, UMD media contact, Susan Latto,, 218-726-8830

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