Students’ Responses to Ethical Dilemmas
Christine Lynn, Ph.D.
Director, Isbell Hospitality Ethics
Richard Howey, Ph.D.
Thomas Combrink, M.S.
Senior Research Analyst
Arizona Hospitality Research and Resource Center
School of Hotel and Restaurant Management
Northern Arizona University
Flagstaff, Arizona 86011-5638
FIU Review, Vol. 25 No 2, Fall 2007
Students’ Responses to Ethical Dilemmas
The teaching of ethics in hospitality curricula is an important part of students’ overall education. Past research has indicated that college students are generally as ethically
aware as their professional counterparts. The authors replicated a study by Schmidgall
and Damitio in which over 700 college students were asked if they agreed with decisions
in 15 hypothetical scenarios. Students were also asked if the decisions were in fact
ethical. Results are reported. The authors use these results as further evidence that
ethical awareness in hospitality students needs to be raised. There does not appear to be
any change in students’ ethical awareness since the original study in the early 1990s. A
discussion of the direction ethics education might take follows. Implications for
hospitality curricula and hospitality students are analyzed. A course of action is recommended.
In the early 1990s, Schmidgall and Damitio surveyed hotel managers, club
managers, and financial managers for their opinions on business scenarios with ethical 1implications and found them to be in reasonable agreement. Eighty-two graduating hospitality students in 1994, had similar opinions when asked about the same scenarios as 2in the Schmidgall and Damitio study. The hypothetical manager in each of the scenarios
was not, however, acting in defined ethical or unethical ways, and the opinions of hotel
managers, club managers, financial managers, and graduating seniors were compared to 3each other rather than to an ethical standard. 4A survey that included the same 15 scenarios administered to hotel managers by
Schmidgall and Damitio (Appendix 1) was devised and administered to university
hospitality students at the beginning of their first semester in the program and again at the
end of their last semester before graduating. Students were asked whether or not they
agreed with the managers’ decisions in the scenarios.
Students were also asked if they thought the decisions were ethical or unethical.
Sometimes people can feel compelled to do things they may think or know are unethical
because of other conflicting concerns or situations. The scenarios were analyzed to
establish the ethicality of each so as to be able to compare each group’s opinion with an ethical standard.
The purpose of this study is to compare students’ responses with the original study responses, compare all responses with the ethical standards, to determine response
differences from students’ freshman to senior years, and to see if there are any underlying demographic variables that might affect their responses.
After numerous news stories concerning the misbehavior of politicians, stock
brokers, television evangelists, and business people, Schmidgall and Damitio declared in 51991, ―The trust of the American people has been shattered.‖ While hospitality industry managers have to deal with ethical questions, there appeared to be little agreement as to 6what was ethical and what was not. Thirteen years and numerous scandals later, a study
found that 65% of travel companies and their suppliers have ethics codes in place, and
that most of their employees are very familiar with the guidelines. Their employees know 7the rules but do not actually always follow them.
Several meeting industry leaders noted that there is a greater awareness of ethics
among meeting planners, and that the CEOs must be ―chief ethical officers,‖ but are
finding that not much is happening besides talk. Many organizations either have no ethics
codes or have ethics codes that are vague and useless. Planners want to do the right thing
but are often offered personal incentives they would rather not have. Some planners feel
that personal ethics are far more important than organization mandated codes, but realize
that it is easy to rationalize unethical behavior. They all agree, however, that 8 professionals must be ethical.
Ethical business dealings have been shown, through research, to be financially
rewarding. The integrity of managers positively affects hotel profits and, when combined
with strong management/employee relationships, workers tend to be more fully engaged 9in their work and turnover is reduced. There is general agreement that today’s leaders
must have strong ethical values, and that it is essential to teach our hospitality students 10ethics.
Ethical decision making can be enhanced when company cultures have ethical
beliefs and guidelines that are shared by everyone. The guidelines can be made explicit in
an ethics code that management and employees together develop that truly expresses the
culture. The leaders must model the expected behavior, and expectations must be
communicated to all employees. Ethical issues must be discussed, and ethical behavior 11rewarded. It is the behavior of the people at the top that determines whether or not an 12ethical culture will permeate the company.
When ethics codes match the values of the company, are communicated
adequately, modeled by management, and ethical behavior rewarded, a shared ethic is
more likely to result. A common value system within an organization influences
decisions and behaviors that are more consistent with the objectives of the organization.
A well thought out and well implemented ethics code can reduce ethical dilemmas and 13result in fewer management problems.
The recent corporate bankruptcies and scandals were, in part, a result of personal
interests of those in control, put above the interests of shareholders. The need for ethical
oversight is the lesson that can be learned from the scandals. Ethics codes can help
management to avoid conflicts of interest and to keep the focus on protecting the assets 14of the organization and acting in good faith and in the best interest of the organization.
The question we seek to answer concerns whether hospitality students today have different ethical values than the hospitality students (and professionals) of the early 1990s.
Has the level of ethical awareness ―improved,‖ or are students’ ethical values still
basically the same, despite efforts to enhance ethical awareness over the past 15 years?
A survey was created using the same 15 scenarios administered by Schmidgall 15and Damitio to hotel managers. The scenarios are presented in Appendix 1. Students
were asked to agree or disagree with the actions the manager took. In addition, students
were asked whether they thought the behavior was ethical or unethical. Surveys were
administered to Northern Arizona University (NAU) hospitality students at the beginning
(in an ―Introduction to Hospitality‖ course) and at the end of their program (in a ―Senior
Seminar‖ course). The samples are not pure in the sense that only freshmen take the
Intro class and only seniors take the Senior Seminar, but in the vast majority of cases
these two classes are populated with freshmen and seniors respectively.
Data were collected for eight semesters, from the fall of 2001 through the spring
of 2005. A total of 735 students were surveyed. The original question of how respondents
reacted to decisions made in the scenarios (agree strongly to disagree strongly) was
revisited. Respondents were also asked whether they believed the decisions were
actually ethical or unethical.
While it is interesting to compare students’ and managers’ decisions, it is more
interesting to compare their decisions to an ethical standard. All fifteen of the scenarios
were analyzed using an Ethics Analysis Form developed by ethics and curriculum design
experts at Isbell Hospitality Ethics. All of the managerial decisions described in the
scenarios were deemed unethical in varying degrees. An example analysis is included in
Appendix 2. The remaining 14 analyses, the survey instrument, and the Ethical Principles
for Hospitality Managers are available by email request (Christine.Lynn@nau.edu). Responses to Scenarios
Table 1 overviews all of the responses to the scenarios by all the groups surveyed
over the years. The highlighted Freshmen and Seniors entries are the results of this study. [Table 1 may be omitted for space purposes.]
Responses to Scenarios
Lodging Mgrs. N = 400 Financial Mgrs. N = 296 1994 Seniors N = 82
HA 100 Freshmen = 408-468 HA 490 Seniors = 241-263
% % % % %
Scenarios Respondents Agree* Unsure Disagree** Ethical Unethical
New Lodging Mgrs. 35.6 16.2 48.2 salary Financial Mgrs. 45.8 11.8 42.4
1994 Seniors 47.5 4.9 47.6
Freshmen 28.5 21.2 50.3 19.0 81.0
Seniors 36.7 24.0 39.3 35.9 64.1 New Lodging Mgrs. 21.6 8.9 69.5 menu Financial Mgrs. na na na
1994 Senior 12.1 9.8 78.1
Freshmen 35.6 17.4 47.0 43.8 56.2
Seniors 46.2 16.7 37.1 58.2 41.8 Spotter’s Lodging Mgrs. 87.3 3.3 9.4 spies Financial Mgrs. 94.9 1.8 3.3
1994 Seniors 80.5 2.4 17.1
Freshmen 71.6 11.9 16.5 74.6 25.4
Seniors 79.2 9.9 10.9 81.7 18.3 Yard Lodging Mgrs. 55.0 6.9 38.1 work Financial Mgrs. 57.6 8.7 33.7
1994 Seniors 45.1 15.9 39.0
Freshmen 52.4 18.9 28.7 58.4 41.6
Seniors 58.1 16.6 25.3 57.4 42.6 Bumped Lodging Mgrs. 6.4 4.6 89.0 reserv Financial Mgrs. na na na
1994 Seniors 18.3 2.4 79.3
Freshmen 13.9 8.8 77.3 4.5 95.5
Seniors 28.8 6.6 64.6 7.1 92.9 Roof Lodging Mgrs. 23.1 6.1 70.8 repair Financial Mgrs. 13.8 6.1 80.1
1994 Seniors 39.0 11.0 50.0
Freshmen 50.6 20.6 28.8 50.8 49.2
Seniors 47.7 19.6 32.7 38.1 61.9 Cashier’s Lodging Mgrs. 62.1 9.4 28.5 integrity Financial Mgrs. 62.3 5.0 32.7
1994 Seniors 37.9 24.4 37.8
Freshmen 49.0 23.1 27.9 47.7 52.3
Seniors 45.5 16.3 38.2 39.1 60.9 Fringe Lodging Mgrs. 18.3 8.9 72.8 benefits Financial Mgrs. 29.9 7.5 62.6
1994 Seniors 9.7 11.0 79.3
Freshmen 18.1 23.9 58.0 22.2 77.8
Seniors 23.0 13.6 63.4 16.4 83.6 Educa Lodging Mgrs. 4.6 3.5 91.9 materials Financial Mgrs. na na na
1994 Seniors 9.8 6.1 84.1
Freshmen 17.3 12.2 70.5 16.4 83.6
Seniors 25.8 7.1 67.1 10.5 89.5 Free wine Lodging Mgrs. 23.9 10.6 65.5
Financial Mgrs. 16.5 5.0 78.5
1994 Seniors 39.0 7.3 53.7
Freshmen 46.0 22.0 32.0 51.4 48.6
Seniors 42.9 15.4 41.7 35.7 64.3 Work Lodging Mgrs. 31.0 11.2 57.8 standards Financial Mgrs. 38.1 10.4 51.5
1994 Seniors 28.0 11.0 61.0
Freshmen 42.9 15.4 41.7 55.1 44.9
Seniors 40.2 23.2 36.6 63.1 36.9 Service Lodging Mgrs. 15.0 6.9 78.1 charge Financial Mgrs. 22.6 10.0 67.4
1994 Seniors 20.8 8.5 70.7
Freshmen 19.1 20.2 60.7 17.4 82.6
Seniors 25.0 17.3 57.7 22.4 77.6 Price Lodging Mgrs. 70.1 7.3 22.6 reduction Financial Mgrs. 74.7 7.8 17.5
1994 Seniors 54.8 17.1 28.1
Freshmen 63.5 16.8 19.7 65.8 34.2
Seniors 62.2 18.5 19.3 70.7 29.3 Stock Lodging Mgrs. 45.2 21.3 33.5 purchase Financial Mgrs. 25.3 16.5 58.2
1994 Seniors 50.0 19.5 30.5
Freshmen 41.1 22.9 36.0 38.7 61.3
Seniors 45.9 18.9 35.2 33.6 66.4 Overbook Lodging Mgrs. 73.4 4.8 21.8
Financial Mgrs. 88.9 3.1 8.0
1994 Seniors 63.5 6.1 30.5
Freshmen 26.0 23.0 51.0 33.0 67.0
Seniors 60.0 14.4 25.6 61.2 38.8 *Agree is a combination of ―strongly agree‖ and ―agree‖ responses. **Disagree is a combination of ―disagree‖ and ―strongly disagree‖ responses.
Comparison of Results by Gender
The results in Table 2 support a long-known fact that males are more likely to
support unethical behavior than females. T-tests were performed on differences between
males and females. In this study males supported, at a significance level of .05 or better, a
more unethical decision than females. There were no differences in four of the cases.
Mean scores were based on:
Agree strongly or agree = 1
Undecided = 2
Disagree strongly or disagree = 3
The scenarios where there were differences between males and females are in
boldface. In no case did the females support unethical behavior more than the males.
Differences in Agreement with Scenario Decisions, by Gender
Scenario Mean Score
Male Female Significance
1. New Salary 1.9628 2.2371 .000
2. New Menu 1.8403 2.1600 .000
3. Spotter’s Spies 1.3802 1.4535 .113
4. Yard Work 1.6534 1.7861 .013
5. Bumped Reservation 2.4103 2.6224 .000
6. Roof Repair 1.6761 1.9393 .000
7. Cashier’s Integrity 1.7875 1.8763 .113
8. Fringe Benefits 2.2199 2.4852 .000
9. Educational Materials 2.4047 2.5982 .000
10. Free Wine 1.7338 2.0000 .000
11. Work Standards 1.9112 2.1922 .000
12. Service Charge 2.2494 2.4713 .000
13. Price Reduction 1.5046 1.6206 .020
14. Stock Purchase 1.8387 1.9894 .007
15. Overbooking 1.9218 2.1818 .000
The results support the long-standing notion that males are more likely to behave unethically than females. Actually, the number of times males agree to unethical
behavior more than females [in 12 of 15 scenarios] lends credence to the original
Schmidgall and Damitio set of scenarios. The fact males consistently agree to behave
more unethically cannot be a coincidence in this study.
Comparison of Results by Year in School
The data were not arrayed in such a way as to allow for tests of significance between freshmen and seniors for each scenario. However, there are differences in what
freshmen and seniors consider to be ethical behavior, as can be seen in Table 3. On
average the student agreement that the management actions were ethical did not change
much from the freshman [39.9 percent] to the senior [42.1 percent] year. However,
differences between freshmen and seniors in individual scenarios do exist. The scenarios
where seniors thought the decisions were more ethical are in boldface.
For example, 61 percent of seniors thought the overbooking decision was ethical, while only 33 percent of the freshmen did. Conversely, 51 percent of the freshmen
thought the free wine decision was ethical while only 36 percent of the seniors agreed.
There does not appear to be any consistent theme that underlies whether the freshmen or
the seniors reported the management actions as being more ethical. One possible
explanation for seniors being more likely to agree with some management decisions is
that, between the freshman and senior year, students are exposed to classroom and work
experiences that seem to teach that some decisions are justified. For example, students
may come to understand the practical realities underlying overbooking as a management
tactic. At the same time, they are not exposed to the ethical implications of their behavior.
It would seem that, at least in the academic experience, teaching the practical necessity of
overbooking could or should be combined with a discussion of the ethical dilemma of
doing so. NAU does not have an ethics curriculum. As a consequence, students have no
formal resource to help develop their ethical standards.
Percentage of Respondents Who Feel Management Actions
are Ethical, by Class Year
Scenario Freshmen Seniors
1. New Salary 19.0 35.9
2. New Menu 43.8 58.2
3. Spotter’s Spies 74.6 81.7
4. Yard Work 58.4 57.4
5. Bumped Reservation 4.5 7.1
6. Roof Repair 50.8 38.1
7. Cashier’s Integrity 47.7 39.1
8. Fringe Benefits 22.2 16.4
9. Educational Materials 16.4 10.5
10. Free Wine 51.1 35.7
11. Work Standards 55.1 63.1
12. Service Charge 17.4 22.4
13. Price Reduction 65.8 70.7
14. Stock Purchase 38.7 33.6
15. Overbooking 33.0 61.2
Average 39.9 42.1
The comparison of students’ belief that the management decisions are ethical
compared to their agreement or disagreement with the decision is provided in Tables 4
and 5. In this case responses were combined into general agreement with and general
disagreement with the decisions, along with a category for those who were undecided. It
is interesting to note that, in general, the students tend to agree with the management
decisions at about the same level that they believe the decisions to be ethical. For
example 74.6 percent of freshmen believe that using spotter’s spies is ethical, and in fact
71.6 agree with the decision to use them. The implication is that the students are going to
behave on the basis of their subjective assessments as to what is ethical and what is not,
irrespective of what the actual ethical nature of the decision is. This implication is
actually a nice thing—the students are not saying they would engage in behaviors they clearly see to be unethical. To the extent that student perceptions of unethical behavior
can be influenced, perhaps so can their actual behavior. There is also the issue of the
relatively large percentage both of freshmen and seniors who are undecided whether they
would behave the way the people in the different scenarios did. If they do eventually
form opinions, could an ethics curriculum help mold those opinions?
Percentage of Freshmen who Believe Decisions to be Ethical,
Compared to Percentage that Agree with Behaviors
% Agree Strongly/ Disagree Strongly/ Undecided
Ethical Agree Disagree
3. Spotter’s Spies 74.6 71.6 16.4 11.9
13. Price Reduction 65.8 63.5 19.7 16.8
4. Yard Work 58.4 52.4 28.7 18.9
11. Work Standards 55.1 31.7 43.1 25.3
10. Free Wine 51.1 46.0 32.0 22.0
6. Roof Repair 50.8 50.6 28.8 20.6
7. Cashier’s Integrity 47.7 49.0 27.9 23.1
2. New Menu 43.8 35.6 47.0 17.4
14. Stock Purchase 38.7 41.1 26.0 22.9
15. Overbooking 33.0 26.0 51.0 23.0
8. Fringe Benefits 22.2 18.1 58.0 23.9
1. New Salary 19.0 28.5 50.3 21.2
12. Service Charge 17.4 19.1 60.8 20.2
9. Educational Materials 16.4 17.2 70.5 12.2
5. Bumped Reservation 4.5 14.0 77.3 8.8
Note: Percentages may not add to 100 due to rounding error
Percentage of Seniors who Believe Decisions to be Ethical,
Compared to Percentage that Agree with Behaviors
% Agree Strongly/ Disagree Strongly/ Undecided
Ethical Agree Disagree
3. Spotter’s Spies 81.7 79.2 10.9 9.8
13. Price Reduction 70.7 62.2 19.3 18.5
11. Work Standards 63.1 40.2 36.6 23.2
15. Overbooking 61.2 60.0 25.6 14.4
2. New Menu 58.2 46.2 37.1 16.7
4. Yard Work 57.4 58.1 25.3 16.6
7. Cashier’s Integrity 39.1 45.5 38.1 16.3
6. Roof Repair 38.1 47.7 32.7 19.6
1. New Salary 35.9 36.7 39.3 24.0
10. Free Wine 35.7 42.9 41.7 15.4
14. Stock Purchase 33.6 45.9 35.2 18.9
8. Fringe Benefits 16.4 23.0 63.4 13.6
12. Service Charge 22.4 25.0 57.7 17.3
9. Educational Materials 10.5 25.9 67.1 7.1
5. Bumped Reservation 7.1 28.8 64.6 6.6
Note: Percentages may not add to 100 due to rounding error
The students in the School of Hotel and Restaurant Management at Northern
Arizona University are primarily white, middle class, and between 18 and 22 years old.
They are friendly, socially adept, enthusiastic, and really care about the industry and
customer service. And, according to the results of the survey, almost half the time, they
do not recognize when something is unethical. It is doubtful that they are less morally
astute than their counterparts in other hospitality programs.
The results suggest that NAU students’ perceptions of what is ethical do shift
around some between their freshman and senior years. In eight of the 15 scenarios seniors
were more likely to see the management decisions as being ethical. Clear differences
between males and females support the existing notion that males are more likely to
believe behaviors are ethical than females.
The seniors’ responses to the scenarios were somewhat similar to the lodging and
financial managers in the original study, but it is unknown if the managers thought any of
the scenarios were unethical. The seniors’ agreement or disagreement with the scenario
managers’ decisions was fairly consistent with their assessment of the ethicality of the
scenario managers’ decisions. In other words, the seniors did what they thought was
There is a gap between what the students think is ethical and what is really ethical.
Some have argued that there are no absolutes and that ethics are relative. This argument,
16. The shared values of however, has been effectively deflated in philosophical literature
American society have deteriorated over the past 45 years. Perhaps because families and
communities have broken down or schools have not changed as society has changed, the 17values are no longer held in common.
Organizations need shared value systems in order to be able to maintain
consistency within their organizations. The ethical standards of organizations, whether
they be written or unwritten, serve as frameworks for employees’ behavior.
Organizations prefer having trustworthy employees, and because traditional values have
become less prevalent, written codes of ethics may be necessary. An ethics code must
match the beliefs of the organization, and all levels of the organization must be 18committed to its success.
Once organizations have identified their underlying values, they can design all
their systems of operation to support the values, and then hire individuals who will be
capable of accepting and working within the values of the organization. Students are
being prepared to take entry level management positions in the hospitality industry. They,
in time, will move into leadership roles which will require them to have a foundation in
ethics to be able to discern ethical dilemmas and make ethical decisions. They should not
be learning ethics on the job. They should, instead, learn ethics in college as part of their
preparation for management careers in the hospitality industry.
The literature states again and again that ethics must be taught in university
hospitality programs. The inconsistent ethics instruction currently found in most
hospitality programs does not adequately prepare students for the ethical demands of
today’s business environment. This study suggests that maturation alone will not make
students ethically aware. They must be taught, and the literature supports an integrated
case study approach.
The mission of Isbell Hospitality Ethics is to improve the ethical climate in the hospitality industry by increasing ethical awareness in hospitality students and managers.
In response to the literature, Isbell Hospitality Ethics developed an ethics curriculum
using a case study approach to be integrated across university hospitality programs. The
curriculum is organized into 14 complete lessons to be administered as is or modified to
suit teaching styles and the needs of students.
The curriculum has also been modified to use as on-line instruction and is available on the Isbell Hospitality Ethics web site (www2.nau.edu/~clj5/Ethics/). It can
be downloaded, modified, copied, put into any web class platform, and is free to use in
any good way. The accompanying textbook has 15 chapters that correspond to the lessons
in the curriculum (Ethics and Housekeeping, Ethics and Foodservice, Ethics and
Marketing, etc.) and focuses on the ―Ethical Principles for Hospitality Managers. The
appropriate ethics lesson can be dropped into each of the core courses, or students can be
required to do the on-line instruction while taking the corresponding course.
The on-going integrated case study analysis instruction, backed with consistent philosophy and pedagogy, is far more effective than the inconsistent and often times
unrelated ethics instruction that may or may not be presented in each course. Students
are better able to grasp the importance of and see the relationship of ethics in every area
of their careers and lives.
This study has verified the ethics gender gap and the need for ethics instruction. It is time to apply the findings of the literature. It is time to incorporate consistent integrated