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The National Football League approved a new personal conduct policy Wednesday, as part of efforts to lay to rest a season-long debacle over its handling of a domestic abuse case involving Baltimore Raven’s running back Ray Rice.
The NFL might have been spared a great deal of expense and embarrassment had league officials consulted a card that can be found in the pocket of any student enrolled at the Northern Illinois University College of Business. That card, a decision making guide, encapsulates the basics of NIU’s BELIEF Program and provides a framework for the examination of ethical issues.
Launched in 2006, BELIEF (which stands for Building Ethical Leaders Using an Ethical Framework) has been heralded as a template for other schools by the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, and repeatedly landed NIU a spot in the top 3 business schools for ethics training, as compiled by BusinessWeek.
Unlike ethics training at most business schools, BELIEF spreads the topic across the curriculum rather than confining it to one class. Whenever an ethical issue arises in a class – whether it be accounting or marketing, management or finance – students apply the same BELIEF process – asking a series of seven questions, and subjecting decisions to any of a dozen different “tests” to help analyze the issue and solutions. The process compels students to step back and take a longer view – something that seemed lacking in the NFL’s response to the Rice case.
“At almost every step along the way, their decisions seemed to be knee-jerk reactions that depended upon whichever way the wind of public opinion was blowing,” said William McCoy,the resident ethicist and director of the BELIEF Program in the college. “
That’s not an unusual response when a business’s reputation and bottom line are at stake.”Ironically, says NIU Professor of Management Terrence Bishop, it is precisely in such instances that such a framework can be most useful.
“Using a process like the one we teach through the BELIEF program doesn’t make decision making easier, it just makes it better,” he says. “It forces you to look at the issue exhaustively. It compels you to get values out on the table and take a look at them.”
“Perhaps they do have such systems in place and chose to ignore them in this instance,” McCoy says. “If so, that is unfortunate, because in situations where your reputation is on the line you cannot afford to throw that process aside. You need a sound, systematic way of looking at these issues. The NFL only looked at what was right in front of them. At each step along the way they seemed to say, ‘Let’s just get this out of the way and move on to the next thing.”
If indeed that was the case, the league could have benefitted from another teaching of BELIEF: that challenging the ethics of decisions is everyone’s job, no matter their position in a company.
“Some people buy the line that business ethics is an oxymoron, but we try to teach students that you can’t check your values at the door,” says Bishop. Even if people don’t want to hear it, they may ultimately appreciate you bringing the issue into the light for a more thorough airing.”