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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Ethics, Gifts, and Education: Managing Conflicting Interests

A Business Ethics Case Study

Natalia Garcia ’23

Natalia Garcia ’23 graduated with a major in economics and minor in international business and was a 2022-23 Hackworth Fellow with the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.


Adam is a young employee at an after-school learning institution that offers various educational services, including both group and private learning. As a senior leader, Adam is responsible for overseeing personnel and resources, directly reporting to the institution’s owners. 

Duing a meeting with parents whose child, Judith, is enrolled in group learning, Adam engages in a discussion about the child’s progress and individualized needs. The parents express their desire to have Hannah, a highly regarded instructor, teach their child. Adam informs them that the group learning service provides a limited scope of services compared to private learning, and if they would like to request a particular instructor they would need to pay more for the private learning service. Otherwise, in group learning, the instructors are assigned on a randomized basis. Sensing the parents’ financial constraints, Adam empathizes with their situation (drawing on his own experience of growing up in poverty).  

Towards the end of the meeting, one of Judith’s parents, who happens to work at a prominent musical venue, offers Adam tickets to a highly sought-after event as a token of appreciation for his exceptional work. Although uncertain about the parents’ intentions, Adam suspects that the gift is an attempt to influence him to allocate additional resources to Judith within group learning and thus also as a way to get the benefits of private learning without paying the higher cost for private learning. The parents say to Adam, “We really appreciate all the work you’ve done here and you’ve been doing such a great job, so we wanted to offer you these tickets. They’re in a great location and are extremely hard to come by, and you deserve it.” 

Adding to the complexity of the situation, Adam is aware of the cultural aspect involved. The parents come from a culture where accepting a gift is considered a sign of respect, and even if the gift is a means of exerting some influence, it is still a representation of their gratitude. Adam realizes that declining the gift may strain his relationship with the parents and potentially hinder their trust in him and the institution. 

Adam finds himself facing a delicate balancing act. On one hand, he empathizes with the parents’ financial constraints and their strong desire for the best educational opportunities for their child. He understands the cultural significance of the gift and the importance of maintaining parental satisfaction - after all, the business runs as long as the parents are happy and the students are happy. He also knows that no one would ever need to know if he were to assign Hannah to Judith thus skipping the randomization process and without Judith’s parents paying for the private package.

On the other hand, he felt obliged to adhere to the institution’s policies and principles of fairness, ensuring that every child has an equal chance to benefit from the group learning program. Adam understands that treating everyone equally, unless there’s a sufficient reason to treat someone differently, is fundamental to the institution’s policy of randomization. It promotes fairness and ensures that all students have an equal chance to benefit from the available resources and instructors. Deviating from this policy could undermine the trust of other parents and potentially compromise the quality of the group learning program.

He must find a way to navigate this delicate situation, honoring cultural norms and maintaining fairness while upholding the best interests of all stakeholders. 

What should Adam do? Should he accept the offer of the tickets? Should he take special steps to assist Judith that go beyond the institution’s policies? 

Questions to Consider

  1. Please identify what you think are the most significant ethical values at stake in Adam’s decision? It will be important to identify these values on all sides of this dilemma. For assistance, please consult the section, “Six Ethical Lenses” from the Framework for Ethical Decision Making by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

  2. What aspect or element of this case study stood out to you the most and why?

  3. How can Adam balance the competing interests of the parents, the institution’s policies, and the well-being of the students?

  4. How might the cultural aspect of gift-giving influence Adam’s decision-making process? What ethical considerations should be taken into account when cultural norms potentially conflict with established policies and principles?

  5. How might Adam’s personal background and experiences influence his decision in this situation?

  6. What role do integrity, honesty, and transparency play in managing conflicting interests in this case? How can Adam uphold these values while addressing the complexities of the situation?


Aug 10, 2023