Well, when you put it that way..
How reframing a problem can help avoid unethical decision making
As I started frantically flipping through the pages of my first exam as an MBA student, I was taken aback by a question that included the results of a recent class poll.
The poll was given to us after reviewing a case of a fictional Pharmaceutical company. This imaginary company was manufacturing a drug, Vanatin, which in light of many years of research was found to be the cause of 30-40 unnecessary and preventable deaths each year. A few key factors that were important to consider in this case is that Vanatin was the most profitable drug in our pharma’s company, there were other drugs made by our competitors that treat the same symptoms but without the deathly side effects, and that the FDA will soon begin an attempt to ban the drug.
After some small group discussion, our class was asked to write down how we personally believe the company should move forward. We were given 5 options to choose from, which ranged from the most ethical of stopping production and removing Vanatin from the shelves, to the least ethical of fighting the FDA with lobbying power so that the company could continue production and sale of Vanatin.
With my overly optimistic attitude and minimal corporate experience, I am very aware of my naivety in the business world. However, the results of this poll truly astonished me.
As it turns out, the class was somewhat polarized on the issue. Out of 42 students, 29 chose either the most ethical or the most unethical option. 19 students chose to stop production and pull Vanatin off the shelves, while 10 students, 24% of our entire class, chose to fight the FDA with lobbying power and continue production and sale of the profitable yet deadly drug. After first staring at the results on what I hoped was a typo, I tried to figure out why so many of my classmates chose the most unethical response.
Let it be known; I do not believe that 10 of my classmates are unethical. However, I do believe that with the combination of a competitive corporate culture and a lack of proximity to the victims, some individuals don't always take a moment to consider the morality of an issue that's presented to them. If we frame the Vanatin issue in a way that removes corporate culture and increases proximity of the victims, I’m fairly certain we would get different results (I would love to test this out by the way!).
For example, let’s imagine that my classmates and I decide to go to an RU football game in our home stadium. Now that Rutgers is in the Big 10, the game we attend is completely sold out, with over 52,000 people in the stands. During half time, one of my classmates wins a special lottery which gives him the option of either taking or not taking $1 billion dollars. The catch? If he takes the money, one person in the stadium will die.
I don’t think it’s presumptuous to assume that none of my classmates would take the money. There are obvious major differences between the Vanatin and Football cases, but when you strip them down you’ll find that the same ethical issue is at stake; financial or personal gain at the expense of human life.
I admit that I’ve never been in a real scenario where I’ve had to vote on a decision similar to the Vanatin case. But, this example surely taught me a lesson, and I hope that my fellow MBA students and I will always remember to consider the morality in our decision making as we embark on future business endeavors.
Danielle Chirico is a first year student in the Rutgers MBA Program. She has a strong interest in ethical leadership and looks forward to your comments and feedback. Danielle can be reached at DanielleChirico@gmail.com or on Twitter @DanielleChirico