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Students in the MBA program at St. Edward’s University take Associate Professor of Management Brad Zehner’s Social Responsibility course, where they explore their core value system, discover where their ethical boundaries are, and examine how cultural and legal differences can change ethical equations. Here’s a look at how Zehner helps prepare students for the ethical decisions they’ll face professionally.

Long before he arrived at St. Edward’s, Brad Zehner found himself in negotiations with a company that demanded a $6,000 bribe from the organization where he was employed. In return for the bribe, the company would provide his organization with an order that could have created 20 jobs in a small Midwestern town where people were desperate for work. “I did the legal thing in not paying the bribe,” says Zehner. “But 25 years later, I still grapple with that decision. It cost my organization 20 jobs for a year and $250,000 in local, state and federal tax revenues. Was not giving the bribe the ethical thing to do?”

Ethical decisions have real consequences, and often there is no obvious “right” answer. But ethics courses like Zehner’s can help future business leaders clarify and articulate their beliefs in ways that help them make smarter decisions, earn respect among their peers and customers, and propel the companies they lead to long-term success.

The course often focuses on cultural differences, an area that has grown increasingly important for companies with global workforces and customer bases. For example, the vast majority of Americans decry child labor, and insist they’d never support a foreign company that employed child workers. But sometimes, the alternatives are even worse. “If you’re a parent in Laos, and your choice to feed your family is to send your 12-year-old daughter to work in a factory or sell her into sexual slavery, what would you do?” Zehner asks.

Students ponder the issue and often suggest a third option that allows children to work for part of the day and go to school for part of the day. It’s a pragmatic solution for a social problem, and a decision students come to by carefully examining what’s most important to them.

To help students understand their own values, Zehner zeros in on six key questions.

1.     Who are you?

2.     What exactly do you stand for?

3.     What unethical event with regard to your value system would cause you to quit your job?

4.     Is your organization ethical?

5.     How do you know if your organization is ethical?

6.     What do you do if you find your organization acting unethically?

Truly ethical companies, says Zehner, have more than guidelines in a handbook or high-minded language in a mission statement; it’s deeply embedded in the organization’s culture. “[An organization’s mission] isn’t just about maximizing return on investment every quarter for stockholders,” says Zehner. “It’s about being a steward for all the stakeholders — maximizing benefits to customers, employees, vendors, communities and investors.”

The MBA program at St. Edward’s University builds highly sought-after skills in entrepreneurial thinking, social enterprise, innovation, global collaboration and business analytics — the areas that business leaders need in today’s business world.

Erin Peterson is a freelance writer.