Markkula Center of Applied Ethics

Ethics Cases

Business Ethics

The Psychological Experiment You Consented To in Facebook's Terms of Service
Kirk O. Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: For one week in 2012, half a million Facebook users took part in a massive psychological experiment aimed at discovering if emotions could be spread through social media. The problem? Users had no idea it was happening.

When Do Startups Have to Grow Up and Embrace Diversity?

Focus: Do startups get a ?pass? on creating diversity in their rapidly growing staffs? If so, for how long? Second, at what point do startups owe the public transparency about their worker diversity?

Betting on the Death of Employees
Kirk O. Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Increasingly, companies are taking out insurance policies on the lives of their employees, and keeping the proceeds when they die. Is this practice unethical?

Performance-based Pay and the Law of Unintended Consequences
Kirk O. Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: How can an organization implement performance-driven metrics, but avoid the pitfalls of incentive gaming and flat out manipulation?

AMAZON: How Far Does "For the Sake of the Customer" Go?
Kirk O. Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Amazon has come under scrutiny for its negotiating tactics with major book publisher, Hachette. Are these tactics in the best interest of the customer?

Another Hoop for Job Applicants to Jump Through
Kirk O. Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: The online retailer Zappos has removed all traditional job postings and is requiring applicants to join and participate on the company's social network. Is this an abuse of power?

Cloud Providers and Their Access to Unprecedented Information
Kirk O. Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Cloud service providers are in a unique position in having access to particularly potent growth indicators. Should they be monetizing this data?

General Solicitation and Startup Fundraising
Elizabeth Powers, Joe Schmid, and Martin Zwilling
Focus: The SEC recently lifted the ban on general solicitation, meaning companies can now public advertise that they are seeking money. What affect will this have on startups and investors?

Should Executives be allowed to be on Social Media?
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: A recent incident involving PayPal and a disgruntled (and former) executive prompts an evaluation of corporate thinking on social media.

Racism in the Corner Office
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Can someone with racist views own or operate an organization?

Kids in the Workplace
Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Should kids be allowed in the workplace? Are parents entitled to extra flexibility than nonparents?

Paying Employees to Quit
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Paying dissatisfied employees to quit is becoming increasingly common. Is this a policy that should be embraced?

Should Executive Bonuses be Reclaimed for Unethical Behavior?
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: The G.M. faulty ignition saga of 2014 raises questions about holding Executives financially accountable for unethical behavior in the organization.

What Rights are Kickstarter Backers Entitled?
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Are Kickstarter backers entitled to anything for their contributions?

Can a CEO Hold Conflicting Values with Company?
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Mozilla CEO under fire for Prop 8 contributions.

Are Tech Firms Responsible for the Misuse of Their Products?
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Do technology firms have an obligation beyond compliance to prevent their products from being used to further human rights violations?

Unlimited Vacation Time: Best Practice or Cost Cutting Measure?
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: At first glance, unlimited vacation hours seem only to benefit employees, but recent research suggests there are other motives in play.

The Two-Tier Labor System
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Companies are increasingly turning to a two-tiered labor system, where two groups of employees are treated quite differently despite performing the same roles.

2014 Olympics: The Corporate Sponsors' Double Bind
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Corporate sponsors of the 2014 Sochi Olympics found themselves in a double bind of sorts as mass protests spread against Russia's anti-gay legislation calling for the sponsors to speak out against the policy.

Accountability in the New Sharing Economy
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: The new sharing economy, led by Uber and Airbnb, has introduced a new set of questions over liability and responsibility as services are increasingly being delivered by everyday users and affiliates.

Are App Developers on the Hook?
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: The app market allows just about anyone to publish their software for download by the masses. Do these developers have the same obligations to their users as traditional businesses?

How Many Minutes Does It Take to Eat a Happy Meal?
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: How far should local businesses go to align their values with those of the community it operates in, especially when they hurt the bottom line?

Disappearing Messages in the Workplace
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Disappearing messages are all the rage for personal use, but now the technology is being marketed to the workplace.

Hacker Attack or Public Service
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: A "white hat" hacker group discovered a security flaw in Snapchat's infrastructure, and to ensure action was taken, published how to exploit it on an internet blog. Hacker attack or public service?

The Pitfalls of Performance-Based Pay
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: A recent U.K. court ruling on an incentive structure that led to illegal sales tactics and numerous conflicts of interest sparks a discussion on the pitfalls of performance-based pay.

Golden Leash? Hedge Funds Paying Board Nominees
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: A new trend of hedge funds offering performance-based bonuses to their preferred board nominees has emerged, raising concerns of conflict of interest.

Tesla's Response to Battery Fires and Safety Concerns
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Recent incidents of Tesla's Model S catching fire has put increasing regulatory and media pressure on the automaker.

Doing Business with China's Elite
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: US firms are increasingly forming partnerships with the sons and daughters of China's elite, demanding clarification of the Foreign Corrupt Policies Act.

Advocacy Group Crafts School Curriculum
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: The MPAA has crafted a school curriculum to educate students on the harms of piracy and importance of copyrights. Should advocacy groups be allowed to spread their message in the classroom?

Using Fines to Enforce Gender Equality in the Workplace
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: A recent trend in Australia has Boards fining their executives for not promoting enough women to senior positions.

Corporations Exert Influence in Local Election
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Kellogg, Monsanto, and Coca-Cola collectively broke the record for funding of a bill in Washington State, raising concerns over multinationals using their resources to determine local elections.

NFL Broadcast Blackouts and the Public Good
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: The NFL's blackout policy is aimed at increasing attendance, but may only succeed in punishing local supporters.

Do Corporations Have a Conscience?
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Small business owners claim that ObamaCare violates their company's "religious conscience," raising the question: do corporations have a conscience?

When Wasting Resources is Better for the Bottom Line
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Do corporations have an ethical obligation to make use of all resources, even when it hurts the bottom line?

Twitter IPO: Where are the Women?
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: After filing for its IPO, Twitter came under heavy scrutiny for the lack of diversity in its senior leadership team.

How Much Control Do You Have Over Your Online Identity?
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Is there some types of public information that should not be publicized or monetized? A "mugshot photo" website forces the issue.

Retraining vs. Hiring Aborad
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Do tech firms have an obligation to hire Americans over foreign talent?

Corporate Transparency in High Profile Terminations
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Is the public entitled to know the details behind high profile terminations?

Rethinking Corporate Policy Toward Whistleblowers
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: In light of Edward Snowden's NSA revelations: should companies leave room for principled whistleblowing on specific issues?

Should Firms Participate in Government Data Programs?
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Should tech firms be participating in government data programs, and to what extent should their users be informed?

Internship Swapping
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Executives and managers alike often "trade internships" to secure positions for their children. Is this practice ethically problematic?

The Rise of the Activist Shareholder
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Should the investing public welcome the rise of the activist shareholder?

The Ethics of Exploiting Tax Loopholes
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Firms have gotten more and more savvy at finding ways to legally pay less in taxes. Are they obligated to follow the "spirit of the law," or legality the only consideration?

Should Retailers Cut and Run from Bangladesh?
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: In the fallout of the Bangladesh Factory Collapse, retailers face a hard decision: buckle down or migrate production to other countries. Is there an ethical component to this decision?

Big Pharma Kickbacks to Doctors
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Are payments by pharmaceutical firms to doctors for educational purposes legitimate?

When Does Tax Law Lobbying Become Tax Evasion?
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Is there anything wrong with eBay using its subscriber base for lobbying purposes?

Are App Privacy Contracts Only Lip Service?
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Are companies ethically obligated to honor their preexisting contracts with users?

Can Gun Manufacturers Advocate Their Narrow Economic Interests?
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Is profit the only driver in corporate lobbying?

When to Step Down from the Board
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: At what point is a board member ethically obligated to step aside?

Does Sincerity Matter in Public Apologies
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Assuming the campaign orchestrated against Apple is trumped up, is it acceptable for Apple to act like it has done something wrong and apologize, or even obligatory in order to protect shareholders?

Incentivizing Employees to be Healthier
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Corporations are increasingly turning to incentive programs to get employees to be more health conscious, and in turn bring down medical costs.

Does the Buck Stop With Management?
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Do senior executives get a free pass for actions of subordinates hidden from them? Or does the buck stop at the top? Should the boss always bear the ultimate blame?

Respecting User Privacy Despite Profiting From It
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Given the value of "big data" to Google, company managers face a dilemma in determining where to draw the line between data they should collect and data that violates privacy.

Should Labor Policy Adhere to Local or Home Country Standards?
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Amazon is quickly becoming despised for personifying the qualities of American-style management that Germans despise. Should Amazon operate by more generous worker policies than it does in the US to appease local protestors?

Corporation Going Private Raises Concern of Insider Trading
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Dell's management team is moving to take the company private with investment firm Silver Lake. Can shareholders get a fair deal without an independent review?

Should Companies Admit They've Been Hacked?
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: What public relations policy should companies adopt when dealing with a cyber security breach?

Are Firms Paying Suppliers Enough to Be Ethical?
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Many suspect that the main cause of ethical mishaps in supply chain to be attributed to firms paying too little for contracts, forcing suppliers to cut corners.

Balancing Corporate Giving With Employee Perks
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: In tight economic times, how high of a priority should companies grant corporate citizenry relative to other expenses?

Employee Theft, Coercion, and False Confessions
Kirk Hanson and Patrick Coutermarsh
Focus: Retailers are increasingly using police interrogation tactics in investigations of employee theft, but reports of false confessions and coercion are on the rise. Should retailers abandon this practice?

Raiding Customer Assets at MF Global: Who Was Responsible?
James O'Toole
Focus: Should Jon Corzine be held accountable for MF Global wrongdoing?

Where Does Your Loyalty Lie? Sexual Ethics in the Workplace
Noah Rickling
Focus: A member of a sales team is asked by the wife of one of her co-workers about extramarital relationships on business trips.

Uncomfortable Attention From a Supervisor
Amanda Nelson
Focus: The vice president of a woman's firm reaches out to her on social media and invites her to a social gathering, which he does not do with her co-workers.

To Tell or Not to Tell the Board: Reporting of Bookings
Alexis Babb
Focus: A CFO is asked to book an order to which the customer has not yet committed.

Responsible Product Use: Regulating the Spread of Genetic Information
Amanda Nelson
Focus: Is a company with a genetic technology responsible for the uses to which other companies put their products?

Quality Management: Signing Off on a Substandard Product
Noah Rickling
Focus: A quality engineer has concerns about a product failing under extreme conditions, but her bosses tell her to push the product through to production.

Language Barrier: Sales Challenges in a Multicultural Environment
Saayeli Mukherji
Focus: Sales staff have trouble communicating the nature of a product to potential consumers.

Hitting the Number in Sales Generation
Noah Rickling
Focus: The sales team is only supposed to pass along "quality leads" to account executives, but there are monetary incentives to hit their numbers, which conflict with passing along only good quality prospects.

Finance Ethics: Do Small Errors Need to be Reported?
Amanda Nelson
Focus: Should a finance department employees correct all errors on reports, even if they are unlikely to have a significant impact?

The Dhaka Factory Fire: Who Is Responsible?
Saayeli Mukherji and Noah Rickling
Focus: Is the Bangladeshi government or the factory owner more at fault for a fire that killed 112 people?

Instagram and the Ethics of Privacy
Alexis Babb and Amanda Nelson
Focus: Is it wrong for an Internet company to share users' information with third-parties and advertisers?

Apps and Privacy: A Case Study
Irina Raicu
Focus: Should apps be able to collect a user's contacts without permission?

Too Close for Comfort
Kirk O. Hanson
Focus: Conflicts of interest for a nonprofit organization

Job Search Dilemma
Rebecca Bivona-Guttadauro
Focus: A job applicant is offered a job that is not his first choice. Should he take it and continue looking?

The Case of the Reference Request
Jim Balassone
Focus: A manager is asked to fudge on a reference for a former employee

Easy on the Wallet or Easy on the Earth: A Case About Ethics in Sourcing
Meghan Skarzynski
Focus: A company must decide whether to order cheap shirts from China or expensive shirts from a local eco-friendly manufacturer.

The Case of the Million Dollar Decision
Michael Hackworth, Thomas Shanks
Focus: A company is planning to expand in a country where bribery is a normal part of doing business.

Dennis Moberg and Edward Romar
Focus: What went wrong at WorldComm? Sweetheart loans to executives and a growth-through-acquisitions strategy are suggested as contributors to this business scandal.

The Case of Greene Gardens
Gregory A. Baker and Kirk O. Hanson
Focus: The case describes the 2006 E. coli outbreak in the California spinach industry.

Business Ethics Scenarios
Jim Balassone
Focus: Brief cases that raise questions on gifts, conflicts of interest, disparagement, and more.

Trust During The Dot-Com Boom
Jessica Silliman
Focus: A company woos a new employee under false pretenses.

WorldCom Case Study Update 2006
Edward J. Romar and Martin Calkins
Focus: A description of the events between the declaration of bankruptcy by WoldCom and its acquisition by Verizon.

Ethics Cases for Product Safety Engineers
John McBain and James Balassone
Focus: Ethical dilemmas for engineers charged with clarifying and overseeing product safety.

The Case of the X979 Jumpstart
Peter A. Facione
Focus: This fictional case study asks us to consider the ethical boundaries involved in intellectual property.

The Case of the Underwater Options
Miriam Schulman
Focus: An acquisition raises questions about fairness and an employee's right to know in this fictionalized case about a biotech start-up.

Mr. Smith Goes to Washington
Leon Panetta & Paul Locatelli, S.J.
Focus: In desperate need of a tax break for his company, a CEO contemplates a questionable campaign contribution.

The Case of Bad News
Gil Amelio
Focus: The new CEO of a corporation learns that he has inherited problems with growth and profitability. A four-day workweek and, eventually, layoffs prove necessary. Who is the CEO obligated to inform and when?

The Case of Due Diligence
Thomas Shanks
Focus: How ethics can guide the conduct of a brokerage firm rewarding sales representatives with trips for the sale of a particular fund.

Nutritional Foods
Kirk O. Hanson
Focus: A company confronts the possibility that its product is causing illness.

The Sole Remaining Supplier
Thomas Shanks
Focus: What are the ethical questions involved when a company is the only supplier of a high-risk, life-saving product?

The Performance Appraisal
Thomas Shanks
Focus: How much should age and longevity with the company count in making lay-off decisions?

The Case of the Plant Relocation
Karen Musalo
Focus: Your company can make more money for shareholders by relocating plants to a country with low costs and fewer regulations.