How to Teach Students to Be 'Ethical'

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Tuesday, December 6, 2016
By Giselle Weybrecht
Business's increasing influence, reach, and impact makes it more important than ever to empower graduates with the tools to be able to make better decisions.

For as long as news has been around, there has been a regular stream of stories featuring ethical scandals, particularly related to business. In more recent decades, the media seems to make a point to mention whether an MBA was involved or not. Asserting, however, that business schools are pumping out graduates who are unethical is ludicrous. Unethical decision-making isn’t reserved for those who graduate from business school, and it isn’t reserved for “bad” people. We all make decisions with potential ethical consequences every day of our lives.

But in a world where business has increasing influence, reach, and impact, it is more important than ever to empower graduates with the tools to be able to make better decisions and understand the related consequences. Accordingly, business schools need to take ethics extremely seriously. Ethics is the glue that ties together everything a business school teaches.

Can Ethics Be Taught?

So can you really teach ethics? This debate has popped up at almost every academic conference I have attended over the past 10 years. There seem to be more articles debating whether ethics can be taught than actual examples and guidance on how to do so. Gustavson Business School, at the University of British Columbia, turned this question into a well-attended lunch-and-learn event for students and faculty. Stanford Business School held a series of events titled “Does Teaching Ethics do any Good?” where professors agreed that ethics classes cannot be expected to make students more ethical, but they can teach students to confidently engage in ethical dialogue.

Other schools, such as Arizona State University’s Thunderbird School of Management and Ivey Business School at Western University Canada are asking students to take an oath as a sign of their commitment to being ethical leaders. But is it enough to simply ask student to recite these lines? Are they prepared to uphold that oath?

That all depends on what actually happens in the growing number of courses and experiences that business schools are putting in place with the word ethics in the title. Only the students can tell you whether these are effective or not, and even they often don’t know. Mostly time will tell.

The variety of approaches to teaching ethics is staggering, with nearly as many different approaches as there are business schools in the world. John Cook Business School at St. Louis University created a personal evaluation tool designed to help students understand the values that influence their choices. Erasmus University’s Rotterdam School of Management allocates a portion of a student’s final grade to evaluate how they have worked with ethics-related issues across all courses. DePaul University created a language manual for ethics education so that faculty could have a common glossary for the discourse on teaching ethics. The Ethics Bowl at Kennesaw State University’s Coles College of Business has student teams assess various ethical dilemmas and compete to determine the most feasible solutions. The Giving Voice to Values curriculum, now based at Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia, provides an approach to teaching ethics that isn’t about persuading people to be more ethical; instead it is about giving them a reasonable chance of doing so effectively and successfully. And these examples are only the tip of the iceberg.

10 Tips for Teaching Ethics

The moments I can recall most clearly from my ethics classes were the moments when students realized that the decision they would have taken in a particular situation was not the same as the decision other students would have taken. These so-called “wrong” decisions were being made by people I considered “ethical.” But hearing the often very valid reasons for choosing a different option forced me not necessarily to change my decision but to further analyze and understand the other positions that existed. It was interesting to see how seemingly small factors could substantially alter what was considered the “right” decision: which pieces of information were presented, how the information was presented, and the many and varied interpretations one situation may have.

So, how can you teach ethics?

  1. Make room for ethics. It needs space, and there isn’t a whole lot of space in an already jam-packed business degree. Unlike a lot of other material that is presented in business school, ethics is not a science or a fact or a tool. It is perhaps a skill, one that takes time to explore, to discuss, and to develop. An ethics class, if done properly, provides this kind of space to students.
  2. Focus on examples of situations that students are likely to find themselves in and give them the opportunity to reflect and discuss what they may do and why, if put in that situation. Assigning students academic and theoretical papers and presentations on ethics is unlikely to make them more ethical. Chances are, with all the other work they have to do, these won’t be read, anyway.
  3. Focus on real-life experiences. Bring alumni and practitioners into the classroom to discuss decisions they’ve had to make, why they made those decisions, the consequences of their decisions, and how they handled them. Share stories within the classroom of experiences fellow students went through and provide opportunities for students to reflect on some of their own past decisions.
  4. Go beyond what is right and wrong and into the reasons and impacts. Ethics is about thinking through and understanding the implications that your decisions can have in a variety of areas. It is about learning how to understand and interpret your gut feeling, to a certain degree. Unlike in the classroom, in the real world it isn’t always clear what is right or wrong.
  5. Practice practice practice. Business schools can help students better identify ethical issues and then have a process for approaching them. This capability comes in part with experience but also through exposure to a wide range of approaches, possible situations, and responses. We have an uncanny ability to rationalize almost anything and then to convince ourselves that we made the right choice. The role of an ethics class is to help us break through this tendency.
  6. Challenge your students by adding complexity. In the real world, no decision will be as straightforward as it will be in the classroom. The pressures pushing us in directions we might not be comfortable with are stronger than we think, and we can easily start to justify small decisions, and then bigger decisions that in the classroom might have come up as unethical. Ultimately we learn how to deal with these ethical situations in the workplace, from our peers, and often copy their behaviors. Help students understand these different situational pressures. Prepare them to work within businesses that don’t have ethics policies, and teach them to approach the different ethical considerations that arise based on different business environments.
  7. Give students the courage to ask the right questions and the confidence to make what they believe to be the right decisions. Students and graduates are growing up and working in an environment with leaders and “role models” who themselves are not always demonstrating or supporting ethical decision-making. Be realistic about the ability to make decisions in the workplace and discuss some of the tough questions: will I be caught? Does anyone really care if I make the wrong decision? Does anyone really care if I make the right decision?
  8. Expose students to a variety of experiences, working with students from different countries and in different environments. Everyone has a their own idea and definition of what ethics is, and that definition can change depending on the situation, the people involved, and the information presented. Help your students examine all sides of the decision, regardless of how clear the answer may seem to them.
  9. Ethics can’t just come up in an ethics class. It needs to be put into context, as well, and be presented consistently throughout the program. Students need to see a culture of ethics across the institution that mirrors the kind of culture we would like to see in the business world.
  10. Finally, ethics isn’t just about the student. It is also about understanding how that student can create an environment, as a manager and as a leader, in their future organization that empowers and enables others to make the “right” decision—and also to report “wrong” ones.

We will likely continue to have discussions about why and how to teach ethics for as long as business degrees are awarded. But as we discuss this topic, the leaders business needs now, that we all need, are ones that are able to embed ethics in everything they do. Oh, and be sure to hold your courses in the morning; according to Harvard University and the University of Utah, that is when we make our most ethical decisions. 

Giselle Weybrecht
Author, Advisor, and Speaker, Sustainability and Business
The views expressed by contributors to AACSB Insights do not represent an official position of AACSB, unless clearly stated.
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