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Are Ethics Courses Failing to Produce Ethical Business People?

What is the Goal of Business Ethics Education?

As a professor who teaches ethics routinely in my Accounting classes, I was intrigued to read an article by Ray Fisman, a professor at Columbia Business School, and Adam Galinsky, a professor at Northwestern University, about why ethics courses fall short in business schools. My first reaction was it is no surprise to me. The purpose of teaching ethics to college students is not to make it less likely they will commit fraud or go along with it during their business careers. There is no way to guarantee that will happen or even expect the goal to be achieved. A more realistic purpose is to get students to develop and act on a set of values that enable them to speak out when wrongdoing exists so it doesn't go that far. There is a college curriculum that approaches the teaching of ethics in that way. It’s called Giving Voice to Values. The approach was developed by Mary Gentile.

Gentile is a Babson College educator and consultant who draws on her business experiences to challenge the conventional notion of business ethics at companies and as taught in business schools. Dr. Gentile uses stories about the actions of exemplars to illustrate the kinds of values that enhance ethical behavior. Her goal is to help young people who want to stand up for their values when confronted with pressure imposed by a boss, customers, peers or shareholders to do the opposite.

I have found in my own teaching that students and young employees need a frame of reference to help make ethical decisions when faced with pressures to do otherwise. I emphasize that once you deviate from your values, it's just a small step down the proverbially ethical slippery slope and it becomes very difficult to regain the high ground later on if (and when) you realize your mistake of going along with or sanctioning wrongdoing in the first place.

Gentile’s approach is a good one because most college students know the right thing to do but have a difficult time doing it – expressing their thoughts and feelings -- because of their personal and organizational purposes are not aligned and pressures exist to deviate from ethical decision-making. Gentile starts with the premise that students do know the right thing to do but have trouble voicing their values. It’s one thing to say “I can’t go along with financial fraud”. It’s another to do something positive to prevent it from happening when your boss is pressuring you to do otherwise. In other words, to do something to voice your values in a way that changes behavior.

A useful approach to teaching business ethics is to help students identify the enablers and disablers of action. I ask students to think about the factors that would encourage them to take action on their values as well as those that discourage them. The goal is to develop a strategy to strengthen the enablers and counteract the disablers. Pressures such as a threatened job loss might lead to silence whereas a strong set of core values (i.e. integrity) should motivate students to speak up and use the enablers by taking the matter to higher-ups in the organization, assuming the CFO persists.

I have found that a useful perspective is to ask students to think about what might happen in the future if they go along with the CFO; use a long-term perspective in voicing values rather than focus on short-term gains. Some understand right away that they might be expected to go along with financial wrongdoing again in the future. Some realize top management can play the “gotcha” game down the road if, all of a sudden, they decide to act on their values but management reminds them of their past acceptance.

The bottom line is there is no way of knowing whether business ethics education has made a difference. A graduate of a prestigious school might commit fraud in the future, but it doesn’t mean business ethics has failed them or even all students. Organizational pressures and the culture of a firm can create barriers to ethical behavior. The key is to find a way to work through the obstacles and voice your values.

I’m asked all the time why I teach ethics and am challenged whether it is even possible to change one’s ethics by a college course. After all, some argue, ethics is formed at a very early age. I don’t dispute that but do point out that my goal is to get students to reflect on their actions in a safe setting so they can better develop the tools to deal with ethical challenges in the workplace. I am not a guarantor of ethical action.

Teaching ethics should not rely on having one college course in business ethics and that is it. I see the failure of business ethics education to be one of not integrating ethics into each course and each decision in business. When colleges rely on one course to teach ethics, they are not sending the message that ethics counts.  If they cover it in all courses and in the context of functional courses, then they send a completely opposite signal that it is an important part of every business decision.

I can teach business ethics – I know it from past experiences including grading papers, exams, and student presentations and papers on the topics. What I don’t know is whether students will really learn the lesson. Similarly, I can teach Intermediate Accounting to my students but I don’t know if they have truly learned the material and will be successful on the CPA Exam or in their accounting careers.

There is old African proverb: “It takes a village to raise a child”. It is quite appropriate to say that it takes an organization to raise an ethical employee.

Blog posted by Steven Mintz, aka Ethics Sage, on September 21, 2012