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When an employee with a disability has work performance problems, how do employers separate genuine failure to perform from performance issues related to a lack of reasonable accommodations?

Such was the dilemma facing 25 VCU undergraduate students who participated in the Ethics Alive Through Creative Communication Competition, a virtual event hosted by the VCU School of Business that merged the school’s previous in-person Creative Communication Competition and Ethics Competition.

Teams of three to four students developed, rehearsed, and delivered an ethical business case study presentation with the help of professional coaches. Altria sponsored the event that included $12,500 in prize money and funding to introduce new ethics modules in key classes.

Each member of the winning three-person team of Samantha Alto, Zachary Garcia and Mackenzie Lenahan had competed and placed in previous VCU competitions, but none had ever achieved the top prize.

“Money wasn’t the main motivator for me; I came to improve my skills,” said Garcia. “I got so much advice and great coaching. That itself was worth it. Majoring in finance, I’m mostly focused on numbers and Excel spreadsheets, but I think the real thing that makes you stand out in groups or projects with other people are your soft skills. Being able to communicate, present your ideas and persuade people can give you a competitive edge.”

Strong ethics “an anchor you can always count on”

On Saturday, March 6, after four weeks of preparation, all student teams competed in a first round before a virtual panel of judges from the business community. The top four teams advanced to the final round, competing for cash prizes before a second round of judges that including Altria CEO Billy Gifford (B.S. ‘92/B).

This was Altria’s fourth year as event sponsor. “In business, the winds of the world will blow you, and you need to be strongly anchored, have well thought-out beliefs and not follow others blindly,” Gifford told students. “Having a good ethical standard means having an anchor you can always count on.”

Indeed, the ethics component was what drew Alto, an international management major, to participate in the competition after placing third on a team with Lenahan last year, “So many business classes are ‘black and white.’ ‘Here’s how to do financial management’ or ‘Here are the laws and regulations.’ We don’t always have the opportunity to examine things in the gray zone. Last year, I learned this was a chance to really home in on ethical decision making and to learn how to make fast decisions.”

Supporting individuals with disabilities

Though Altria and Gifford recently joined The Valuable 500 that aims to put disability on the global business leadership agenda, it was coincidental that the ethics challenge focused on a hypothetical workplace scenario involving an employee with hearing loss.

Like other members of her winning team, Lenahan, an economics major, says she knows and has family members with disabilities. “I was already sympathizing with ‘Susan’ a lot,” she explained. “But one thing emphasized in the rubric was that we not just focus on the person with disabilities but consider all perspectives – including her boss, every department and the company as a whole. That was helpful to me as a business student.”

The exercise undoubtedly changed the perspectives of all competitors. “There is such value in bringing together a diverse group of students who have to assess their own ethics, biases and preconceptions,” explained Virginia Premier Health Plan President, Linda Hines.

Hines, a final round judge, is an alumna of the VCU Executive MBA program and recently helped to create the Oraphine Watkins Crump Scholarship for first-generation VCU students. “It takes a great team effort to pull something like this off – to learn to work together, determine a direction and solution, engage everyone and concisely get their points across. These students did not miss a beat,” she said.

Tammie Goode, an internal communications specialist at Altria, served as a first-round judge. Goode was intimately familiar with the competition having won the first-ever Creative Communications Competition as a VCU business student in 2016 and then going on to mentor to Giovanni Knight. Knight, now a data analyst with CapTech, won the 2020 competition as a VCU senior and returned as an alumna to emcee this year’s  final round.

“I would never have imagined, four years ago when I competed, that this is what this competition would have turned into,” said Goode. “VCU and the VCU community has taken this competition to the next level by supporting their students with initiatives like this and introducing ethics, which are the cornerstone of any company. VCU’s students are phenomenal and created amazing presentations even while working remotely in a pandemic.”

“Instead of just going to class and taking exams, VCU gives its students so many opportunities put in work on extracurriculars to build a network of business professionals,” said Alto. “Companies like Altria, CarMax and Dominion are all part of my network now as a result of competitions like this. That’s insanely helpful as a business student. These types of opportunities and challenges you put yourself through make all difference after you graduate to help ensure you get the kind of job you love and deserve.”

2021 winners

1st Place ($5,000) – Zachary Garcia, Mackenzie Lenahan, Samantha Alto

2nd Place ($3,500) – Summer Natour, Josephine Veserat, Ritika Eda

3rd Place ($2,000) – Zahira Hernandez, Katherine Le Pham, Sharon (Viva) Chapman, Ragda Awad

Best Outline ($1,000) – Kelsey Watlington, Jackie Coughlin

Competitors Choice ($1,000) – Brian Glessner, Shiainn Sarkosh, Julia Duxbury

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