Ethics competition challenges students to balance bottom line and social responsibility

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Team Transfer Squad presents during the competition (credit: Jon Reis)

In business, ethical choices are not always obvious. It takes experience and skill to make the best decisions when corporate obligations to customers, shareholders, employees, and society are at odds. Students felt the weight of this reality during the second annual Stephen S. J. Hall Ethics Case Competition held March 7 at the School of Hotel Administration. The competition tested their ability to navigate complex business ethics issues and then propose and defend an ethical plan of action.

“The competition gives students a way to explore options creatively, learn from teammates, and take a cross-disciplinary approach to ethical business decisions,” said Judi Brownell, professor of management and organizational behavior, who organizes the event. “Thanks to the generosity of the Hall family, students from across campus can learn the many aspects that go into making ethical business decisions.”

In this year’s competition, students were challenged to create a revenue-generating plan for Twitter that would not violate the privacy of the company’s users.

Transfer Squad (Quinn Cox ’15, Kevin Driscoll ’14, Lilia Karimi ’15, and Helen Momo Koessler ’15) won first place for their plan to sell certain public tweets to Google and Microsoft. The companies would then create relevant, time-sensitive ads tailored to the customer’s specific interests. Anticipating potential backlash from users, the team designed mandatory webisodes that quickly and easily explained Twitter’s new privacy policies and educated users about their options.

The second place prize went to DAJS Hospitality (Steven DiDominica ’14, David Duber ’14, Julia Kosineski ’14, and Alec Sherman ’14), who suggested that any data mining by Twitter was unethical. They instead proposed a revenue-generating solution called “Tweet Tree.” By subscribing to the new platform, Twitter users would gain more control over who sees their tweets and how widely their tweets could be shared.

Three teams earned honorable mentions: The Duo (Nicole Del Busto MMH ’14 and Nishchint Vaid MMH ’14), Dictates on Conscience (Phoebe Chan ’17, Stephen Jacobs ’17, Susan Li ’17, and Nicole Polemeni-Hegarty ’17), and DiaoSisters (Yiwei Chen ’16, Yu Feng ’16, Tia Wei ’16, and Angel Xu ’16).

“Ethics is central to our curriculum, not only at SHA but across Cornell,” said Michael D. Johnson, dean and E. M. Statler Professor at SHA, as he addressed the students in the competition. “It has to be embedded in your DNA. It can’t just be one course; you have to work on it every day.”

The competition—which included students from the SHA undergraduate and MMH programs, College of Arts & Sciences, ILR School, College of Engineering, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, and College of Architecture Art and Planning—is part of a school-wide ethics initiative that launched in 2010, backed by Stephen '56 and Marjorie Hall HumEc '58 and their son Larry '81. Larry’s son, Stephen '06, represented the family at the competition and served as a judge alongside members of the SHA faculty--Susan Fleming, Reneta McCarthy, Dana Radcliffe, Tony Simons, Neil Tarallo, and Maria Wolfe.

Stephen Hall congratulated all the students for participating in the competition and reminded them about the importance of ethics in their lives: “The study of ethics is not just an academic pursuit. It carries on through your leadership throughout your career. Carry it with you, and you will do well.”

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