MY VIEW • Annual Ethics Bowl allows students, business leaders to explore hard questions about ethical behavior

The ethical lapses we see around us cast a long shadow: steroids in sports, political self-dealing, and two economic bubbles in one decade attributed by many to questionable business practices. Such are the consequences of putting one's own interests first at all costs, ahead of everyone and everything.

Some profess to know the right thing with absolute certainty. But certainties can crumble in the transition from theory to practice. According to student and workplace surveys, more than 90 percent of us say we're satisfied with our ethics, yet some 50 percent of resumes are padded and about 75 percent of people report seeing unethical behavior at work. Clearly we must work harder to recognize - and avoid - even small ethical dilemmas in order to prepare us to act on the big ones.

That is what a group of business leaders and students aspired to do at the fifth annual Ethics Bowl in Portland two weeks ago. The program began with a business ethics debate between six local chief executive officers and community leaders about the importance of ethics in leadership, decision making and interpersonal relations. The following evening, 10 liberal arts colleges from the Oregon Independent College Foundation came together to vie for the Ethics Bowl trophy through a series of debates at the University of Portland.

Using the college bowl model, teams of three to five students deliberated a variety of case studies focusing on real-world ethical dilemmas that challenge analysis and decision-making skills. Approximately 50 business executives and community leaders served as judges and evaluated team arguments, ultimately awarding Willamette University the 2010 Ethics Bowl trophy for 2010.

As I reflect on the case studies that were used for the CEO debate, it occurs to me that we all search for absolutes in ethics. We talk of ethical behavior, but we seem surrounded by violations of practice. Possibly, the failure of practice is found in our own inability to see ethics as a day-to-day, hour-to-hour journey. Ignoring this, we make many small, unnoticed violations that eventually build up to larger acts that make us fall.

We sponsor the Ethics Bowl, along with other businesses, because we believe ethical behavior comes from constantly considering what the right thing to do is. We're all confronted with choices every day, and each ethical, responsible decision strengthens us for the next potential challenge.

Please take a moment to consider your own contribution to ethics in action. Discuss what ethical behavior looks like in your workplace and in your daily life. Keep ethics at the forefront and be clear about ethical expectations.

Students are mirrors of our society. In them, we get a glimpse of what our future will bring, and from them, we refresh our own ideals.

Mohan Nair is an executive vice president at Regence BlueCross BlueShield of Oregon and chairman of the board of the Oregon Independent College Foundation. He also served as moderator of the Annual Ethics Bowl CEO Debate on Feb. 26.

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