Defense supplier gets mixed grades for 'Gray Matters'

ETHICS TAUGHT THROUGH GAME

March 01, 1993|By Kim Clark | Kim Clark,Staff Writer

You are an employee of Martin Marietta Corp., one of the nation's largest defense contractors, and you have good friends who work for the Department of Defense. When entertaining them do you:

A) Drink only soda pop and steer conversation away from business?

B) Relax and have a good time, but absorb all the entertainment costs yourself, even if business is discussed?

Or C) After every meeting, submit to the company's ethics office a detailed report about who discussed what?

If you've answered C, you've confused ethics with paranoia. Demote yourself to a night shift worker's job. If you've answered A, you've only gone a little overboard. Just turn in your key to the executive washroom. But if you said B, promote yourself to vice president.

That's the way the game of ethics is played at Bethesda-based Martin Marietta.

"Gray Matters," designed by George Sammet, Martin Marietta's vice president for corporate ethics, allows up to four teams to work their ways up (or down) a fictitious corporate ladder by thinking out ways to handle sticky situations.

"It is called Gray Matters because it is about thinking, and because life is not black or white," Mr. Sammet said.

Though some have questioned whether a game is the best way to teach a serious subject like ethics, and whether this game, in particular, really teaches ethical behavior, "Gray Matters" has swept through the business world in the 10 months since the company published it.

Martin Marietta has shipped sample copies to 160 other companies, and to 70 universities that have requested them, Mr. Sammet said.

Mr. Sammet, who had been giving what he now concedes were probably less-than-thrilling speeches on ethics to Martin Marietta employees for five years, got the idea for the game in 1991 after meeting a Citibank employee who told him about her company's ethics game.

When Citibank told him it would not share the game with him because it was proprietary, Mr. Sammet decided to make his own and share it with other businesses.

He and his staff spent about $10,000 and half a year writing and clearing with executives 55 "mini-cases," multiple-choice answer cards, and booklets explaining why each answer was good or bad.

Some cases have two or three good answers (although one is usually better than others). Some have only bad answers, he said.

And since the game was published last spring, he and his 20-person ethics staff have been on the road, taking the game to various company locations as part the defense company's mandatory annual "ethics updates." So far, about 25 percent of Martin Marietta's 60,000 workers have played the game, he said.

Normally, he divides groups into four teams, and asks team members to discuss their answers. "The learning is in the discussion," he said.

Winners get a Tootsie Roll or another small prize. "It's more fun than a dull lecture," he said.

At Citibank, winners get whistles for being a good "whistle-blower," he said. But Martin Marietta didn't want to follow the bank's lead because "we don't like the connotation of 'whistle-blower,' " he said.

Noting that the defense industry and Martin Marietta have had a history of ethical problems, Andrea Giampetro-Meyer, who teaches a course on business and society at Baltimore's Loyola College, worries that companies that use games to teach ethics are not really serious about having employees take potentially unpopular, or unprofitable, moral stances.

In 1991, Martin Marietta was fined more than $2.5 million for overcharging the government for computer services.

Some say the game, which tends to reward answers such as "Tell your supervisor," or "Inform your ethics officer," just isn't realistic.

Take, for example, the question of how to handle a boss' acceptance of a supplier's free ticket to the Super Bowl. Mr. Sammet's game card awards the most points for confronting the supervisor and informing him or her of the company's policy against accepting gifts worth more than $10.

That may be technically correct, but to do so would be to commit career suicide, said Marilyn Moats Kennedy, author of the

"Career Strategist" newsletter.

"Why don't you just shoot yourself in the head?" she asked rhetorically.

She said a wiser way to handle the problem would be to say something like "Oh my God, Harry [the boss] would kill us." The point is to keep your boss and yourself on the same side, while discouraging the unethical behavior, she said.

A group of Georgetown University business school students who played "Gray Matters" with Mr. Sammet last month sometimes argued with the realism of the company's answers, said Craig Smith, a professor of marketing and ethics at the Washington-based graduate school, who helped lead the game.

The answers "are a little inflexible," he said. But the game was a terrific exercise in discussing rights and wrongs of business, he said.

A QUESTION OF ETHICS

The following are ethics questions from "Gray Matters," a game developed by Martin Marietta to teach business ethics to employees.

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