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The business of ethics

By Brittany Yingling

In the early 1990s, top U.S. accounting firms KPMG, Pricewaterhousecoopers (PwC) and Ernst & Young snagged great deals: back-end rebates on airline tickets purchased for clients. There was only one problem. The companies continued charging face value for the reduced-price tickets. When these discrepancies surfaced, the firms' executives landed in court, where PwC eventually settled a multi-million dollar lawsuit and KPMG and Ernst & Young remain in negotiations. But another issue is still at stake: reaffirming their ethics to clients and other businesses.

These high-profile cases piqued the interest of five Ohio University students. College of Business students Brandon Schaedlich, Mary Paltza, Jessica Buckosh, Paul Bilderback and Elise Yinger are members of the Society of Advancement of Management (SAM), a business organization whose members seek to build management skills and develop professional characteristics. At a SAM meeting, they snatched up the opportunity to not only be the first to represent the University in a national ethics conference but to earn a free trip to Los Angeles, where the ethics conference is held each year. Their case of choice? The cases of KPMG, PwC and Ernst & Young.

The workload was heavy. The quintet analyzed the legal, financial and ethical aspects of the case and developed recommendations to reinstall an ethical standard to each company. The group made specific suggestions, such as to employ an ethics department, to hire an external organization to conduct random evaluations and to revise policies and procedures.

But they were not the only group that wanted the chance to go to L.A. Two other teams pulled together from the College of Business, and all three competed for a panel of judges in what Schaedlich called "a quick, on-your-feet competition." Schaedlich, Paltza, Buckosh, Bilderback and Yinger beat out the other two teams, securing spots as representatives of the University.

With support from the Institute for Applied and Professional Ethics, which promotes the use of ethics in real-world decision-making, the team prepared for its next conference. The conference is just one of many available through the institute, which organizes workshops and supports students in fields related to ethics and involved in ethics-related projects.

The taste of victory still sweet, the team set to work fine-tuning the presentation. They used suggestions from Arthur Zucker -- director of the institute, associate professor of philosophy and the group's advisor on ethics -- and Rick Milter, associate professor of management and advisor of SAM. Mark Snider of the Athens business Snider Fuller and Associates, and Mary Keifer, a faculty member in the College of Business, also served as consultants to the students.

On April 17, the group flew to L.A. and competed the next day against schools from across the country -- from New York University to Loyola University of Chicago. The Business Ethics Fortnight competition, held at Loyola Marymount University, gives business students from across the country a chance to develop ethical business plans as well strengthen management skills, such as public speaking and giving presentations.

A panel of judges and a video camera lined the middle of the lecture-style classroom where the quintet presented its 30-minute case. The competitions' judges included business executives, accounting representatives, a doctor and a university professor.

Following each half-hour presentation, a 30-minute session followed with questions and advice from the judges, who were acting as representatives of the companies for which students were making recommendations. "The Q & A was really good," Buckosh said. "It made us think on our feet." Most of the comments were positive and "their feedback and their critique was extremely valuable," she added.

Although their team did not score high enough to move on to the final round, they weren't through with competition yet. The group registered for L.A.'s Weirdest Biathlon, a second requirement for participants in the Business Ethics Fortnight. Not only did each team have to excel in its case, Schaedlich said, but it had to excel in the race.

"We were not only competing against each other but as a whole. You were also running against L.A.," Schaedlich said. Whether some, like Schaedlich, trained for the race, or others just put their best effort in, each believed it was a positive experience. "It felt good, like you had accomplished something."

By the end of the three-day stint, the team members ventured throughout L.A. and even met two reality-television stars. What Zucker hoped would be an interesting experience for the students turned out to be a success. "I think as a group, we've bonded more and are able to trust each other more," Schaedlich said. "It has definitely broadened my perception of ethics and its seriousness."

Brittany Yingling is a student writer with Research Communications.

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