By Don Bolding
Killeen Daily Herald
A key concern of the worldwide Students in Free Enterprise organization is support of ethical behavior, and the team in the business department at Central Texas College responds by trying to educate middle-school and high-school students about the subject.
Members can never be sure what lasting effects their efforts are having, but they say they see evidence the message sticks, however well it's put into practice.
They attempt to increase awareness or knowledge of what ethical behavior is supposed to be. Shortly before Christmas, a group consisting of team president Andrew Smith, presenter Adriana Olson, Donna Phillips, Pamela Cofer and Heath Brown gave a series of three presentations to career preparation students at Killeen High School, the 11th through 13th talks they've given this year.
Their faculty adviser, Dr. John Frith, said that in the previous 10 presentations, students had registered an average of a 109 percent gain in knowledge of simple ethical behavior. The knowledge revolves around answers to the questions:
Is it (a given action) legal?
Is it fair?
Is the information true?
How does it make you feel?
Is it how you'd like others to treat you?
The questions may not be introducing new information to some of the students but may help codify what they already know to guide future actions.
"We know they're hearing us," Smith said. The teachers say it really helps that the information comes from junior college students just a couple of steps up the ladder, although some have had significant post-high school experience.
Still, the students argue. Considering the case of the Oval Office encounter between then-President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, one student asked, "Well, what difference did it make?"
Olson answered, "First of all, he's married. Second, he was the leader of the most powerful nation on earth."
The material the team uses says that in hypothetical cases, 4 percent of students in 1987 said they would keep excess change given them by a restaurant server, and 33 percent said they would in 2006.
In the case of finding a billfold containing $1,000, 15 percent in 1987 would have kept it without trying to find the owner, and 49 percent would do that in 2006. Records showed the figures increasing steadily at intervals in between.
Some of the students this month expressed a "finders-keepers, losers-weepers" attitude, but most of the ones defending the dishonesty said it's increasingly difficult to make financial ends meet, and people are more justified in taking advantage.
"It's a matter of survival," one said. Another said, "Everything costs more now."
Smith said the lesson in the presentation seems to have more effect with middle-school students than high-school students.
Some may have been testing the testers, challenging them to strengthen their defense of right over wrong. Olson asked them to think what the $1,000 would mean to a student of his or her family.
SIFE records show at least one case of a less affluent student answering that she would try to find the rightful owners because she appreciated what such a loss would mean to them. She saw keeping the money as a greater wrong than more affluent students did, whether or not times are rough.
But the defense of the "so-what" challenge seemed to boil down to an assertion of paraphrases of the Golden Rule.
The overall message of the presentation was that there is a general decline in ethics, not confined to business practices; in fact, the moral and ethical climate in business is a reflection of moral conditions in the society, and the situation in business is not apt to improve until the ethics of society demand it.
The presentation includes several quick case studies, many of them about high-dollar court settlements. Included were:
Imclone's insider trading in the wake of revelations the company's stock was about to drop. Stock trading on privileged tips is illegal.
A post-9/11 lawsuit against American Airlines alleging the company did not protect against possible terrorist acts.
A suit against a pharmaceutical company because one pharmacist, unknown to the company, was diluting cancer drugs.
A suit against McDonald's restaurants by a woman who spilled a cup of coffee on herself, suffering burns.
A suit by a man who stopped to help keep a huge American flag from touching the ground, suffering injuries. He sued numerous companies, and three settled out of court because the settlements would amount to less than legal fees in a trial.
The SIFE presentation raised the question whether the suits were fair, but the cases were raised to prove that, although there may be an ethical crisis in business, it's only a part of the moral and ethical level in society at large and that everyone has a part in solving it.
The career-preparation teachers at the presentation, Misty Lenox, Loy Brown and Kathie Thomison, said this is the second year the SIFE team has worked with the students. All expressed high opinions of the program.
"The students themselves will say later that the program did some good," Brown said.
Lenox indicated the students believe it's authoritative: "They come up to me when they have to do a presentation of their own and ask if the SIFE presentation should be a model."
Olson summed up her presentation by urging, "Now go do the right thing."
If that still works, maybe it will bear fruit, bit by bit.
Contact Don Bolding at email@example.com or call (254) 501-7557