OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

college of business

CH2M HILL chairman and CEO to speak at OSU April 15

Lee McIntire, chairman and CEO of CH2M HILL, will give a free, public lecture on Monday, April 15, at Oregon State University, discussing the opportunities and risks of running a global business.

Part of the OSU Division of Business and Engineering Lecture Series, the talk begins at 5:30 p.m. in the Austin Auditorium of LaSells Stewart Center, 875 S.W. 26th St., Corvallis.

McIntire’s talk, “Working on the Frontier: The Changing Nature of Global Business,” focuses on the increased globalization of business, the reasons companies have for expanding internationally and how they can best accomplish it.

McIntire took over as CEO at CH2M HILL in 2009 and has more than 30 years of international engineering and construction experience. The firm serves clients on six continents, with 30,000 employees and annual revenue of $6.4 billion.

This will be McIntire’s first visit to the Oregon State campus. CH2M HILL was founded in 1946 by an OSU professor and his three students, and Corvallis remains home to one of more than 160 global offices.

Prior to joining CH2M HILL, McIntire was a partner and board director of the Bechtel Group. He is a non-executive director of BAE Systems, PLC and lends his leadership to forums such as the Business Roundtable and World Economic Forum. He was awarded the Woodrow Wilson Award in 2011.

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Jenn Casey, 541-737-0695

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Lee McIntire

OSU’s College of Business celebrates outstanding alumni and businesses on May 7 in Portland

PORTLAND, Ore. – Six alumni of Oregon State University and one business partner will be honored for their achievements at the OSU College of Business’ Celebration of Excellence on Tuesday, May 7, at the Portland Marriott Downtown Waterfront.

The 12th annual Alumni and Business Partner Awards will recognize outstanding professional achievements and services to the college by alumni and business partners. This year individuals from four different states and an alumnus working in the United Arab of Emirates will be honored.

The evening begins with a reception at 5:30 p.m., followed by the dinner and the awards presentation at 6:30 p.m. For more information or to register, go to http://business.oregonstate.edu/awards or contact Rachelle Nickerson at rachelle.nickerson@oregonstate.edu.

The 2013 award winners representing alumni from around the globe include:

Hall of Fame: Robert G. Zahary ’65, higher education consultant (United Arab Emirates);

Distinguished Service Award: Frank Morse ’70, Oregon State senator and businessman (Albany, Ore.);

Distinguished Business Professional: Gordon Clemons ’65, chairman and CEO, CorVel Corporation (North Carolina); and Don Atkinson, senior executive in sales management, marketing and business development (Federal Way, Wash.);

Distinguished Early Career Business Professional: Meadow Clendenin Stahlnecker ‘99, attorney, Patton Boggs LLP (Dallas, Texas);

Distinguished Young Business Professional: Alicia Miller ‘05, senior financial analyst, Nike, Inc. (Beaverton, Ore.)

Distinguished Business Partner: Oregon Department of Transportation

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Jenn Casey, 541-737-0695

Putting a human face on a product: when brand humanization goes wrong

CORVALLIS, Ore. – When companies put a human face on their brand, the public usually responds positively. This advertising approach has brought us alarm clocks with sleepy faces and color-coated chocolate candies with legs and arms.

But a new study, published online ahead of print in the Journal of Marketing, finds there is a greater backlash by the public when a product branded with human characteristics fails.

Lead author Marina Puzakova, an assistant professor of marketing at Oregon State University, said even though consumers can tell a camera designed with human characteristics such as little eyes and legs isn’t a person, the very act of humanizing a product can be a powerful tool.

“Somehow, now the product seems alive and mindful, and therefore can be perceived as having intentions and its own motivations to act in a certain way,” Puzakova said. “This perception of intentions can be extremely strong – consumers now see the brand as performing bad intentionally and therefore consumers develop more negative sentiments toward the brand.”

Puzakova conducted five experiments with products that had experienced negative publicity. As a general procedure, participants saw advertisements of both existing and fictitious products, where “human” characteristics, such as arms, legs, or facial-like features were manipulated. Then Puzakova showed participants news reports about how the product had failed in some way, not lived up to its advertising claim, or did not function based on consumer expectations.

In every instance, participants reported that they had stronger negative reactions to the products that were given human characteristics, also known as “brand anthropomorphization.”

“Brand anthropomorphization can be a very powerful advertising tool, so I am definitely not saying that companies shouldn’t use it,” Puzakova said. “However, they need to be aware that when they imbue their products with human-like characteristics, any backlash when something goes wrong could be stronger.”

Puzakova’s study found that the strength of negative reactions depended on consumer personality differences as well. Based on a personality test she gave participants, she found that people who believe in “personality stability,” or that personality traits are always the same and don’t change over time, tended to have stronger negative feelings towards anthropomorphized brands.

“Broadly speaking, men tend to believe in personality stability more than women, and seniors as well,” Puzakova said. “Also, some cultures tend to believe in this more than others. This can be important for advertisers to know, depending on who their target market is.

Having a deeper knowledge about their target markets, companies can also design their advertising communications tailored for different types of consumers. For example, marketers may want to emphasize flexibility and change in an ad campaign in order to reverse negative attitudes by male consumers, who tend to believe in personality stability.

Puzakova’s research also has a lesson for companies whose brands fail because of a product malfunction.

“As consumers who believe in stability of personality traits react to product failures more negatively, our research finds that companies need to provide either monetary compensation or give away coupons,” Puzakova said. “Offering a public apology is not enough. For instance, companies that have a humanized brand marketed heavily towards seniors may need to be prepared to generously compensate those consumers if something goes wrong.”

The bottom line, Puzakova said, is companies need to know their audience and the possible dangers of humanizing a brand when a product malfunctions. It can be a powerful advertising tool, but if the product fails in some way, the damage control could be costly and timely.

Hyokjin Kwak of Drexel University and Joseph Rocereto of Monmouth University contributed to this study.

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Marina Puzakova, 541-737-4297

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An image showing a humanized versus non-humanized product.

 

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Marina Puzakova

OSU’s Weatherford Awards, celebrating entrepreneurs and innovation, held Feb. 21

PORTLAND, Ore. – Oregon’s first woman governor, a groundbreaking heart surgeon, a dynamic chief executive and innovative tech startup founders are among the recipients of this year’s Weatherford Awards, Oregon State University’s annual celebration of entrepreneurs and innovators.

The awards will be held Thursday, Feb. 21, at the Hilton Portland & Executive Tower.

Hosted by OSU’s Austin Entrepreneurship Program, the event starts at 5:30 p.m. with a reception, followed by a dinner and the award presentations. Tickets are $95, available until sold out, and can be obtained at http://business.oregonstate.edu/programs/aep or by contacting Mary McKillop, 541-713-8044 or mary.mckillop@bus.oregonstate.edu.

The awards are named for OSU's Weatherford Hall, where entrepreneurship and business students can explore their innovations and new venture ideas in a unique, living-learning residence hall. Traditionally, the awards have been given to entrepreneurs and innovators later in their career. This year, for the first time, a trio of young entrepreneurs and Oregon State alumni are being honored as well. 

The recipients of the 2013 Weatherford Awards are:

  • Don Robert, an Oregon State alumnus and the chief executive officer with worldwide responsibility for global information services company Experian. Previously CEO of Experian North America, Robert started his career at US Bank, and joined Experian from The First American Corporation in 2001. From 1995 to 2001, he held positions with First American and before that served as president at Credco, Inc.
  • Gov. Barbara Roberts, a fourth-generation Oregonian and the first woman elected as governor of Oregon. In 1985 she was elected Oregon’s Secretary of State and in 1991 she became governor. After her term she served as director of the State and Local Government Executive Programs at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, held a senior fellowship at the Harvard Women and Public Policy Program, and served on the Metro Council in Portland.
  • Dr. Albert Starr, co-inventor of the world’s first successful artificial heart valve. Dr. Starr joined Oregon Health and Science University in 1957 and led OHSU’s heart surgery program from then until 1964. In 1960, he and engineer M. Lowell Edwards invented the Starr-Edwards heart valve. He now serves as the Distinguished Professor of Cardiovascular Medicine in the School of Medicine. Last fall, he was appointed to co-lead the OHSU Knight Cardiovascular Center.
  • Alex Polvi, Dan Di Spaltro, Logan Welliver, the trio of Oregon State alumni who co-founded Cloudkick. The group was part of the 2009 Y Combinator startup incubator, which provided the support needed to launch Cloudkick. The company, which provides cloud server monitoring and management tools, was acquired by Rackspace Hosting in December 2010.
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Jenn Casey, 541-737-0695

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In sports, the story - not the victor - makes the difference in enjoyment

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study has concluded that sports fans love to root for a hero and against a villain, but if the game is exciting, they’ll enjoy it no matter who wins.

The research, recently published in the Journal of Media Psychology, examines emotional experiences, outcome satisfaction, and enjoyment of athletic events, particularly ones featuring individual athletes rather than team sports.

Lead author Colleen Bee, an assistant professor of marketing at Oregon State University, said the Olympics are a good example of an event where fans often cheer for little-known athletes competing in little-watched sports. The allure for these casual fans is not necessarily the sport itself. The spectacle and inherent drama associated with an athletic event is enough to make fans watch.

“Knowing something about the personal lives and personalities of these athletes gives the casual fan a reason to root for or against someone,” Bee said. “The stories matter here. It magnifies the experience of watching the game, and gives people a reason to watch.”

In the study, Bee had participants watch speed skating competitions. She confirmed that none of the participants were familiar with the athletes before watching the event. Then she provided participants with one of two fictitious scenarios. In one scenario, an athlete was given heroic qualities such as working with ill children, a commitment to the cause of cancer prevention, dedicating his performance to his mother, and being gracious and considerate. In the second scenario, the athlete was imbued with unfavorable qualities, such as testing positive for performance enhancing drugs, being arrested for public intoxication, and being ungracious and inconsiderate.

She found that viewers of the game rooted for the heroic athlete and of course hoped that the “villain” would lose. Yet, she found that all the study participants reported enjoying the game regardless of the moral qualities of the winning athlete.

“There are people who enjoy watching famous athletes compete even though they may not like them personally, or feel like they aren’t good people,” Bee said. “Yet, because they are exciting to watch, and in many cases because they have an exciting story, sports fans still enjoy watching them compete.”

While the participants felt disappointed when the “villainous” athlete won, and similarly relieved when the heroic athlete won, they all reported enjoying the game despite the outcome.

“Casual sport fans often enjoy the experience of a highly competitive event even when the outcome is not desirable, due to the entertaining and exciting nature of suspense,” Bee said, pointing to her last study which found that winning or losing games did not matter so much as whether or not the game was close.

Bee is an expert on sports marketing, particularly in the areas of sports and emotions and gender/consumer responses.

Robert Madrigal, associate professor of marketing at the University of Oregon, is co-author of the study.

 

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Colleen Bee, 541-737-6059

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Colleen Bee

Oregon State University Advantage to spur education, economic growth

CORVALLIS, Ore. – OSU officials today launched a new initiative called Oregon State University Advantage, designed to boost the university’s impact on job creation and economic progress in Oregon and the nation.

“Oregon State University Advantage should foster increased bottom-line success for business,” said Rick Spinrad, OSU vice president for research.

“It will dramatically increase private industry access to talented OSU faculty and researchers, take better advantage of OSU’s unique capabilities, increase the number of spin-out companies, and expand education and job opportunities for students and other Oregonians,” Spinrad said.

Within the next five years, the program also is expected to increase industry investment in OSU research by 50 percent and lead to the creation of 20 new businesses. Hundreds more OSU students will work not only with existing companies, but become involved in every stage from fundamental science to business plans and running start-up companies.

Two key parts of Oregon State University Advantage will be the OSU Venture Accelerator and the Industry Partnering Program.

The Venture Accelerator will begin immediately with $380,000 in support from the OSU College of Business, Office for Commercialization and Corporate Development, and the University Venture Development Fund. It’s designed to identify innovation or research findings that might form the basis for profitable companies, and streamline their development with the legal, marketing, financial and mentoring needs that turn good ideas into real-world businesses.

The Industry Partnering Program will be co-directed by the OSU Foundation and the OSU Research Office. Officials say it will become a “one-stop shop” to help industry access talent; do research and development to aid business success; bring in millions of dollars in private investment in research; and ultimately produce the type of experienced graduates wanted by global industry.

“Many programs and people will be involved in all of these initiatives, but the broad theme is to increase the societal and economic impact of OSU,” said OSU President Ed Ray.

“This is a mission that’s critical to the future of Oregon and the nation,” Ray said. “Producing high-achieving graduates ready to work and create new businesses and jobs is the most important part. But we also see more that can be done in meeting the needs of existing industry, expanding existing business, creating new businesses and jobs, and getting students much more involved in their real working careers while they are still undergraduates.”

To serve as a base for the program, it’s anticipated that a 2,000-square-foot facility will be identified and occupied between OSU and downtown Corvallis later this year.

Various features of Oregon State University Advantage, the Venture Accelerator and the Industry Partnering Program include:

  • Expanded university research will be directed toward industry business needs, while providing opportunities for students, economic growth, patenting and licensing of new discoveries and inventions, and new companies.
  • Outside entrepreneurs and executives will work with faculty and students to evaluate new ideas, and the best ideas will be considered for proof-of-concept grants and equity investments.
  • At least 300 OSU students each year will work with Venture Accelerator projects, and more in the Industry Partnering Program, doing research, identifying markets, and creating business plans.
  • The end result should be improved educational programs and a major increase in the societal and economic impact of OSU’s research, already the largest in the state at $281 million a year.

“It’s a massive job to translate research into a profitable company,” said Ron Adams, executive associate vice president for research. “Students can help us analyze ideas, study market potential and do the legwork on so many tasks. There’s plenty of work to go around.”

Work of this type will greatly enhance educational opportunities, officials said.

“The students will have the opportunity to get practical experience working with the business community while helping drive the economy,” ” said Ilene Kleinsorge, dean of the OSU College of Business. “This experiential learning will prepare them to have an immediate impact to their employers when they graduate from the College of Business.”

OSU has been working in initiatives related to this for a decade or more, and has many success stories in commercialization, industry investment in research, and student internship programs. About 1,200 students are already involved in its entrepreneurship programs and more than two dozen companies have evolved from OSU research.

The Oregon State Venture Accelerator Program is a component of the South Willamette Valley Technology Business Accelerator, featured by the governor’s South Willamette Valley Solutions Group at the Oregon Business Plan Summit last December. The South Willamette Valley Regional Solutions Center will seek funding for the regional accelerator initiative during the 2013 Legislative session. At this stage, details remain to be determined.

More information on Oregon State University Advantage is available online, at http://oregonstate.edu/advantage/

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Ron Adams, 541-737-7722

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Study: Elderly go from being perceived as capable consumer to ‘old person’

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Many baby boomers want to improve the way people view aging, but an Oregon State University researcher has found they often reinforce negative stereotypes of old age when interacting with their own parents, coloring the way those seniors experience their twilight years.

Drawing on in-depth interviews with consumers in their late 80s, their family members, and paid caregivers, Oregon State University researcher Michelle Barnhart found that study participants viewed someone as “old” when that person consumed in ways consistent with society’s concept of older people, and not simply when he or she experienced inabilities that come with increased chronological age.

“Our society devalues old age in many ways, and this is particularly true in the United States, where individualism, self-reliance, and independence are highly valued,” Barnhart said. “Almost every stereotype we associate with being elderly is something negative, from being ‘crotchety’ and unwilling to change to being forgetful.

“Conflicts come up when someone does not think of themselves as old,” Barnhart added, “but people in their family or caregiving group are treating them as such.”

The study is now available online and will be published in the April 2013 issue of the Journal of Consumer Research.

Barnhart, who is an assistant professor of marketing at OSU, said her study explains how consumption activities, which can range from buying groceries to attending medical appointments, serve as a means of identifying someone as old. They also serve as a venue for working through conflicts that arise when older consumers who do not identify themselves as old are treated as an “old person” by family members and service providers.

“When people in their 80s or 90s exhibited characteristics that society tends to associate with people who are not old, such as being aware, active, safe, or independent, they were viewed and treated as not old,” Barnhart said. “In this way, they were able to age without getting old.”

When perception-triggered conflicts arose, older consumers used various strategies to negotiate their identity with others. Sometimes they attempted to convince others of their not-old identity through verbal arguments. Other times, they tried to prove that they were not old by independently performing activities. Another strategy was to force a change, such as shutting out their younger family member entirely.

“Abbie,” an 89-year-old woman from Texas, told Barnhart when she went to her doctor with her daughters, the physician would only talk to her children.

“If younger people bring you in, they think it’s because you’re not, I guess, lucid enough to understand what they’re saying,” Abbie said. “But that irked me so bad that I wanted to grab him by the collar and say, ‘Look, talk to me! I’m the patient.’” To avoid this type of treatment, Abbie barred her daughters from the doctor’s exam room during future appointments.

Barnhart said the adult children of elderly consumers in the study were primarily in their 50s, and often voiced that baby boomers would change how people view old age, but she said unless society stops devaluing and marginalizing older people, this will not happen.

“Unless we change the way we view old age, the generation younger than the boomers will treat them the same way as soon as they show a few more wrinkles, or seem a bit shaky on their feet,” she said. 

In addition, Barnhart said policies that view aging and health as issues faced by individuals need to change to reflect a larger group decision-making process. Programs such as Medicare, for instance, may need to shift to provide services not just for the elderly consumer, but their support networks to help them deal with the inevitable loss of ability that comes with aging.

“Losing a bit of your independence by getting help from others doesn’t have to equate with becoming a devalued and marginalized member of society,” she said. “Everybody ages, you can’t stop that. But what we can do is respond to someone’s limitations in a way that preserves dignity and value.”

Lisa Peñaloza of the Bordeaux School of Management is co-author of the study.

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Michelle Barnhart, 541-737-1455

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Study finds slot machine players don’t fit stereotype

BEND, Ore. – A new study looking at why people play slot machines at casinos debunks the stereotype of poor, uneducated senior citizens gambling their Social Security pensions in hopes of a big payday.

In fact, co-author Sandy Chen, of Oregon State University-Cascades, and her colleagues found that the most common profile of a slot machine enthusiast was a female homeowner, between the ages of 55 and 60, with at least some college education and an annual household income of more than $55,000.

Results of the research have been published online in the International Journal of Contemporary Hospitality Management, and will be published in a print edition of the journal in 2013.

The study is important, the authors say, because there is little in the professional literature about the motivation for why people like slot machines despite casinos’ acknowledged odds of taking gamblers’ money over the long haul.

“Most of the studies on gambling look at problem gambling, casino atmospheres or general personality and motivational traits,” said Chen, an assistant professor of Hospitality Management at OSU-Cascades. “There’s just not a lot out there about why people are attracted to slot machines.

“And that is surprising,” she added, “since the bulk of a casino’s revenue comes from slot machines.”

Chen said previous research has shown that some 70 percent of casino revenues come from slot machines, up drastically from the 1970s when that figure was closer to 40 percent. Not surprisingly, a 2006 survey showed that 71 percent of casino gamblers prefer slot machines and/or video poker over other games.

Just as popularity of slot machines has increased, however, so has the diversity of machines. Gone are the old-fashioned one-armed bandits that would offer rows of cherries, oranges, and plums. In their place is a dizzying array of machines featuring wizards, horse races, loud music, game show characters and other traits to lure potential customers.

Do they work? That is what Chen set out to discover. In her study, she surveyed more than 1,000 slot machine players to find out why they like slot machines and what characteristics they share. The gamblers were subscribers to Strictly Slots magazine and frequented casinos throughout the country.

What she found was that slot machine players fell naturally into four groups, which she calls utilitarian, excitement, multipurpose and relaxation gambling seekers.

“There are very different motivations for playing slot machines,” Chen said, “so casinos may be making a mistake when they take a one-size-fits-all approach to marketing, or creating an atmosphere within their facility. They may be better off with a segmentation approach.”

Utilitarian gamblers, in essence, are looking for something to do. Many are seniors, who are looking to kill time, reduce boredom, or simply get out of the house – and they are less motivated by financial rewards or excitement. Some, Chen said, enjoy people-watching as much as the actual slot play.

Excitement gamblers are looking for a buzz – the thrill of winning a jackpot, relaxing and having a good time. This group doesn’t like progressive machines with bigger payouts, Chen said, because they don’t pay off frequently enough to provide the excitement.

Multipurpose gamblers tend to be younger, less educated, have lower household income, and are less likely to be married and own a home. Their motivation is to have fun and win money, and they are attracted to themed games and other machines they consider “lucky” or fun to play.

Relaxation gamblers were the most educated and well-to-do, and played slot machines for the socialization and fun. However, they also like to stay within their denomination – usually 25-cent machines or $1 machines, and often look at slot play as a way to relieve day-to-day stress.

“Casinos can cater to these different types of gamblers,” Chen pointed out. “Instead of having a long line of slot machines, for example, they can be arranged in a circle to maximize socialization for those that are motivated by that aspect. Socialization may be a major reason for people to continue going to casinos instead of choosing online gambling options.

“The study also suggests some differences, in general, between male and female slot players,” Chen said. “Women are more into functional motives – the social experience, the excitement and the fun – whereas men tend to look more at the financial rewards. They want to make money.”

Among other findings of the study:

  • More than 60 percent of those surveyed favored small and frequent payouts over larger, sporadic payouts;
  • 52 percent of the respondents played video poker, while about 24 percent played video blackjack;
  • Only 33 percent like machines with progressive jackpots, but of those who did, an overwhelming 70 percent said their favorite game was Wheel of Fortune;
  • Only 18.9 percent said having a themed game was important. Among those who liked themed games, 23.8 percent would choose a board game, 60.8 percent would choose a game show theme, and 56.8 percent liked action movie themes (respondents could choose more than one category);
  • The most popular video poker games were “Jacks or Better” (31.8 percent), followed by “Deuces Wild” (21 percent) and “Double Double Bonus” (16.9 percent).

Other authors on the study include Stowe Shoemaker, from the University of Houston, and Dina M. Zemke, Johnson & Wales University.

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Sandy Chen, 541-322-3164

Family businesses honored during ceremony in Portland on Nov. 15

PORTLAND, Ore. – Generations, LLC. and the Melvin Mark Companies of Portland, along with Fruithill, Inc., of Yamhill and Coelho Winery of Amity, will be recognized as winners at the 2012 Excellence in Family Business Awards at a ceremony Nov. 15 at the Governor Hotel in Portland.

The awards are presented by Oregon State University’s Austin Family Business Program.

This year five winning companies, seven finalist companies and two individuals will be recognized. More than 180 companies have been honored in this peer-reviewed competition since the awards were first presented in 1988.

“We are honored to recognize such accomplished and successful family businesses,” said Sherri Noxel, director of the Austin Family Business Program. “The 2012 winners have strong connections between the generations and are thoughtfully building businesses that will be successful for many generations.”

The awards recognize the achievements of family businesses in innovation, entrepreneurship, and commitment to community involvement.

During the ceremony, Atiyeh Oriental Rugs of Portland will be honored with the Dean’s Award for Family Business Leadership. The Atiyeh family has owned and operated these rug stores since 1900. The family has also been committed to public service, including that of former Oregon Gov. Vic Atiyeh.

Coelho Winery won the micro category for businesses with nine or fewer employees. The Coelho family began growing grapes in the Willamette Valley in 2004 and now produces more than 12,000 cases of wine each year. The family has successfully integrated sons David and Sam Coelho into the business started by parents Dave and Deolinda Coelho.

Andersen Family Farms of Ellensburg, Wash. was a finalist in the micro category.

Fruithill, Inc. of Yamhill was honored in the small family business category, which recognizes businesses with 10-24 employees. The Schrepel family has operated the business since a wedding gift in 1919 provided seed money for a small farm. The company now grows cherries, plums, hazelnuts, wine grapes and other crops in addition to on-site processing.

Twelve-Mile Disposal Service of Portland and Gomberg Kite Productions International of Lincoln City were finalists in the small category.

Melvin Mark Companies were recognized in the medium category for businesses with 25-99 employees. The Portland firm began in 1945 and now has four generations of the family involved in the enterprise. The company manages and leases more than 19 Portland-area commercial properties.

Finalists in the medium category were Alan Brown Tire Center of Newport and Musgrove Family Mortuaries of Eugene.

Generations, LLC. won the large category (100 or more employees). Managed by the fourth generation of the White family, Generations runs senior living communities on the West Coast.

Hubbard-based Ulven Companies and Capitol Auto Group of Salem were finalists in the large category.

Also recognized will be Bobby Garrett, assistant professor of strategy and entrepreneurship at OSU, and Christopher Thompson, a recent College of Business graduate who joined his family firm, TEC Equipment, Inc.

Founded in 1985, the Austin Family Business Program is a university-based family business program providing inspiration, education, outreach, and research to support the success and survival of family businesses.

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Sherri Noxel, 541-737-6019

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Atiyeh Oriental Rugs of Portland will be honored with the Dean’s Award for Family Business Leadership at the 2012 Excellence in Family Business Awards. Photo: OSU College of Business

Wearing two different hats: moral decisions may depend on the situation

CORVALLIS, Ore. – An individual’s sense of right or wrong may change depending on their activities at the time – and they may not be aware of their own shifting moral integrity — according to a new study looking at why people make ethical or unethical decisions.

Focusing on dual-occupation professionals, the researchers found that engineers had one perspective on ethical issues, yet when those same individuals were in management roles, their moral compass shifted. Likewise, medic/soldiers in the U.S. Army had different views of civilian casualties depending on whether they most recently had been acting as soldiers or medics.

In the study, to be published in a future issue of The Academy of Management Journal, lead author Keith Leavitt of Oregon State University found that workers who tend to have dual roles in their jobs would change their moral judgments based on what they thought was expected of them at the moment.

“When people switch hats, they often switch moral compasses,” Leavitt said. “People like to think they are inherently moral creatures – you either have character or you don’t. But our studies show that the same person may make a completely different decision based on what hat they may be wearing at the time, often without even realizing it.”

Leavitt, an assistant professor of management in the College of Business at OSU, is an expert on non-conscious decision making and business ethics. He studies how people make decisions and moral judgments, often based on non-conscious cues.

He said recent high-profile business scandals, from the collapse of Enron to the Ponzi scheme of Bernie Madoff, have called into question the ethics of professionals. Leavitt said professional organizations, employers and academic institutions may want to train and prepare their members for practical moral tensions they may face when asked to serve in multiple roles.

“What we consider to be moral sometimes depends on what constituency we are answering to at that moment,” Leavitt said. “For a physician, a human life is priceless. But if that same physician is a managed-care administrator, some degree of moral flexibility becomes necessary to meet their obligations to stockholders.”

Leavitt said subtle cues – such as signage and motivation materials around the office – should be considered, along with more direct training that helps employees who juggle multiple roles that could conflict with one another.

“Organizations and businesses need to recognize that even very subtle images and icons can give employees non-conscious clues as to what the firm values,” he said. “Whether they know it or not, people are often taking in messages about what their role is and what is expected of them, and this may conflict with what they know to be the moral or correct decision.”

The researchers conducted three different studies with employees who had dual roles. In one case, 128 U.S. Army medics were asked to complete a series of problem-solving tests, which included subliminal cues that hinted they might be acting as either a medic or a soldier. No participant said the cues had any bearing on their behavior – but apparently they did. A much larger percentage of those in the medic category than in the soldier category were unwilling to put a price on human life.

In another test, a group of engineer-managers were asked to write about a time they either behaved as a typical manager, engineer, or both. Then they were asked whether U.S. firms should engage in “gifting” to gain a foothold in a new market. Despite the fact such a practice would violate federal laws, more than 50 percent of those who fell into the “manager” category said such a practice might be acceptable, compared to 13 percent of those in the engineer category.

“We find that people tend to make decisions that may conflict with their morals when they are overwhelmed, or when they are just doing routine tasks without thinking of the consequences,” Leavitt said. “We tend to play out a script as if our role has already been written. So the bottom line is, slow down and think about the consequences when making an ethical decision.”

Pauline Schilpzand from OSU, along with researchers from the University of Washington, Virginia Tech, and Wake Forest University, contributed to this study.

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Keith Leavitt, 541-737-8631