How Can Business Schools Help Humanity?

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Tuesday, June 14, 2022
By Mohanad Halaweh
Photo by iStock/Nastco
Instead of focusing primarily on business ethics, business courses should teach students to act on humanitarian principles.
  • Business schools should integrate a humanitarian emphasis into their programs, curricula, events, and activities.
  • These principles complement traditional ethical guidelines rather than replace them.
  • Humanity principles offer universal guidance that encourages business leaders to place people at the heart of their decisions and actions.

One of the most profound ways business schools can make an impact on society is by teaching future business leaders to prioritize people over profits. While potentially there are many ways to achieve this goal, I favor an approach that focuses on social and ethical issues. More specifically, I call for schools to integrate humanity principles into their curricula.

For decades, business schools have infused ethics education into their programs by providing standalone business ethics classes or covering the subject in discipline-specific courses such as accounting, leadership, strategic management, marketing, and information systems. Schools assessed learning outcomes to ensure that business graduates were aware of the ethical issues related to their professions and would be able to apply ethical standards to their actions and decisions.

Although this approach is still necessary and worthy, I see an urgent need to shift to a broader level of thinking based on universal humanity values.

The Case for Humanity Principles

There are two main reasons I believe schools cannot focus solely on ethics education.

First, ethical values rely on three dimensions: place, time, and people. What is considered an ethical practice in one region or culture might not be viewed the same way in another region or culture, even within the same country. In addition, actions and opinions that were viewed as acceptable 20 years ago might be considered unethical nowadays. What one generation views as right or wrong changes over time.

At the same time, the world of work is becoming more diverse. Immigration has resulted in waves of people becoming more mobile, and the growth of multinational companies has made business more global in nature. More managers are working on international projects and participating in global programs aimed at talented professionals. We need business leaders who have open mindsets and see themselves as international citizens.

Such leaders will consider humanity principles when their actions and their decisions cross the boundaries of one country or culture. They must be familiar with a broad universal umbrella of principles that do not rely on cultural context.

These principles will guide leaders through a world that is changing rapidly and dramatically because of global crises, emerging phenomena, and ongoing developments in technology. Humanity values will be applicable even when people, places, and situations have changed.

Second, humanity principles have broad applicability. Ethics-based values emphasize the proper management of an organization’s financial or human resources, or both at the same time. But humanity principles focus first and last on the human element, even if the principles sometimes contradict an organization’s usual rules for ethics or run counter to its goals for making a profit.

Humanity values are not limited by codes of conduct or ethics statements that are posted on bulletin boards. They are not expressed in the form of policies that organizations impose on their professional leaders and staff.

Humanity principles focus first and last on the human element, even if the principles sometimes contradict an organization’s usual rules for ethics.

Humanity values are ideas that have a high degree of collective agreement among people around the world. They are independently driven by an individual’s self-motivation. When people practice humanity—when they feel empathy toward others and support others through their actions and decisions—they experience happiness and satisfaction.

I do not aim to say that humanity principles should replace ethical responsibilities. Rather, humanity principles should complement ethical ideals. They should provide universal guidance that encourages all business leaders to prioritize people whenever they make any decision.

Four Core Values

Most people are naturally born with general humanity values. But these values also can be acquired, learned, practiced, and emphasized through business school programs and activities. Schools that want to teach humanity values might start by adopting the core ideas outlined by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA). According to OCHA, there are four principles:

Humanity. Human suffering must be addressed wherever it is found. The purpose of humanitarian action is to protect life and health and ensure respect for human beings.

Neutrality. Humanitarian actors must not take sides in hostilities or engage in controversies of a political, racial, religious, or ideological nature.

Impartiality. Humanitarian action must be carried out on the basis of need alone, giving priority to the most urgent cases of distress. Aid should make no distinctions on the basis of nationality, race, gender, religious belief, class, or political opinions.

Independence. Humanitarian action must be autonomous from the political, economic, military, or other objectives that any actor may hold with regard to areas where humanitarian action is being implemented.

If a business school chooses to follow these principles, it should incorporate them into its mission, academic programs, research, internal and outreach initiatives, events, and activities. The principles should be familiar to all of the school’s stakeholders, including faculty, staff, students, and graduates.

Three Key Approaches

How can educators make humanitarian principles part of their case studies, courses, and programs? I see three main directions they could take.

First, schools could participate in humanitarian projects sponsored by the business community. They could contribute to these efforts by conducting research aimed at solving common global or local problems that society faces.

Schools could teach business professionals how to exercise humanity values when carrying out daily operations and making strategic decisions.

Second, schools could teach business professionals how to exercise humanity values when carrying out daily operations and making strategic decisions. To this end, schools could introduce a course such as Humanity-Centric Business into the curriculum.

The class might begin by considering the differences between ethics and humanity, reviewing humanity principles and values, laying out a business strategy for acting according to these principles, and giving future leaders examples of how to act as humanistic role models. Then the class could explore how humanity principles can permeate entrepreneurship and social enterprises. Students could learn how to design human-centric products and services and how to use technology to support humanity. Through case studies of humanistic firms, leaders, products, projects, and initiatives, students could uncover the challenges and advantages of running humanity-driven businesses.

Students could complete the course by carrying out humanitarian business projects. As part of their projects, they might conduct research, participate in campaigns or events, create new products or services, launch social enterprises, or create public policy blueprints that are centered around benefits to humanity.

Third, school leaders can take several actions to support faculty who want to shift their focus to a curriculum that emphasizes humanity. For instance, they could empower professors to introduce courses like the one described above, encourage professors to address humanity issues at business conferences and events, recognize humanity initiatives when requiring faculty to perform community service, and reward faculty and student groups that promote and exercise humanitarian values.

A Definition of Impact

AACSB member schools already are encouraged to consider societal impact, particularly as they seek to meet Standard 9 of the 2020 Standards. It is my belief that, apart from the accreditation standards, AACSB could go a step farther and embrace a platform of humanity principles.

Collectively, our industry needs to determine what it means by positive societal impact and where humanity fits alongside other dimensions such as sustainability and ethics. I believe that schools should encourage deans and faculty to act as role models and actively participate in humanitarian activities outside the classroom—and schools should encourage students to participate in such events as well. All these efforts will enable schools to promote humanity values while they prepare graduates to be humanistic business leaders.

When future leaders believe that humanity principles add value to their business environments, they will create organizations where everyone shows more sympathy to others. As a result, their companies will enjoy the benefits of a positive image and an enhanced reputation. Employees will care about customers and serve them better, which will result in financial returns, even though increased profit is not the motive behind their actions.

When business schools around the world collectively consider the humanity dimension, we undoubtedly can make a significant positive impact on both industry and society. If we also exercise humanity values in our daily lives, we can have an impact far beyond the boundary of the business environment—we can make the entire world a better place.

Mohanad Halaweh
Professor of Information Systems, College of Business, Al Ain University
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