Graduate Management News

The Alsop Perspective: The Eternal Challenge of Teaching Ethics

Ask a group of educators their opinions about teaching ethics, and you’ll likely get a different response from everyone. At least, that’s been my experience after nearly a decade of writing about ethics and MBA programs, starting with the post-Enron reactions to the role some MBA graduates played in that and other scandals of the day. 

Now, in the aftermath of the spectacular financial meltdown of 2008, MBA programs have again come under attack as part of the problem, and many b-school deans and professors are reflecting on how much they can do to prepare graduates for the inevitable ethical quandaries of the workplace.

The challenges include not only how to teach ethics but also who will teach it. “Today, a lot of schools are trying to figure out how to teach ethics in a time of recession with fewer faculty slots,” said Kirk Hanson, who has taught ethics since the mid-1970s and is now executive director of the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University. At some schools, faculty cutbacks “have shrunk the commitment to business ethics, and a lot of energy also has been drained off toward social entrepreneurship programs.”

Over the years, ethics education has progressed from broad lessons drawn from the great philosophers to case studies of actual ethical dilemmas in business, with a dash of philosophical theory thrown in. Some schools have tried with varying degrees of success to integrate ethics throughout much of the curriculum, either with or without a complementary stand-alone ethics course. Others offer only a dedicated ethics course but increasingly make it a requirement, not an elective. And more recently, graduates of some schools have taken an oath, pledging to act ethically in their lives and careers.

New Approaches

Cynics say none of those methods have worked very well, given that money still seems to trump moral character in today’s society. The problem may be that what is being taught is necessary, just not sufficient.

That’s why some educators are trying approaches that go beyond the traditional strategy of providing analytical and decision-making tools to help resolve ethical dilemmas. For example, Mary Gentile, a longtime educator in the field of business ethics, believes students need to figure out how to be heard and “get the right thing done” once the right decision has been made.  She is encouraging schools to help students take that next step through Giving Voice to Values, a global curriculum she developed with support from the Aspen Institute and Yale School of Management.

“If you discover the books have been cooked, how do you create a script and action plan that is persuasive?” said Gentile, senior research scholar and director of Giving Voice to Values at Babson College, where the online curriculum is now based. “It’s like an entrepreneurial approach to ethics: Let’s get this done.” In a Giving Voice to Values course, for instance, student teams can present their solution to an ethical scenario in “a safe place” where classmates judge them on persuasiveness. Then, the team takes the feedback and refines its script and action plan. “Rehearsals,” Gentile said, “can help students feel more confident.”

Giving Voice to Values has spread to more than 140 business schools on six continents, Gentile said, and has moved beyond MBA programs to the executive MBA and undergraduate level, as well as to engineering schools. Companies and medical and law schools also are showing interest in Giving Voice to Values.

Net Results Look Bleak

Such an approach sounds sensible, but could ethics courses actually backfire? That’s what Jeffrey Pfeffer, professor of organizational behavior at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, believes. Such courses can make people overconfident about their integrity and decision-making, he said. They may feel that after ethics training, they are entitled to an occasional lapse in moral behavior. He compares such “moral credentialing” to the common rationalization that because I worked out at the gym I can treat myself to a slice of chocolate cake.

To try to deflate overconfidence, Pfeffer recommends that instructors impart the message that “just because I have an ethics course doesn’t mean I have all the answers.” That might encourage people “to talk to colleagues and maybe lawyers for advice and not over-rely on their own experience.”

Lack of consequences may be an even bigger obstacle to ethical behavior. Ethics lessons are being taught at a time when students and executives observe that many of the people whose companies helped spark the recent economic crisis are making mega-salaries again and facing no major consequences for their questionable behavior.  “It’s serious that almost no one’s gone to jail and that executive compensation bounced back so fast,” Hanson said. “Students see that there’s no apparent accountability. There’s a real crisis of confidence in the business leadership of this country.” Indeed, a recent poll by Maritz Research found that only 14 percent of American workers believe their company’s leaders are ethical and honest.

So how do you get students to make ethical decisions in such a climate? Not easily. Said Pfeffer:  “It’s unreasonable to think that any course, no matter how brilliantly it is taught, can counteract the message society is sending when you pick up a newspaper and see nothing happens to bad people.”

Ron Alsop is the editor of Workforce Management, the leading magazine on workplace and talent management issues. He is a former Wall Street Journal columnist and editor and the author of The Trophy Kids Grow Up: How the Millennial Generation Is Shaking Up the Workplace and The Wall Street Journal Guide to the Top Business Schools. The Alsop Perspective runs quarterly in Graduate Management News.


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