Business Ethics as a Core Course in Business Schools? What a novel idea…or do you prefer an Orange Jumpsuit and Handcuffs?

What a novel idea is right…  It seems that what is OBVIOUS sometimes is missed by the masses.  Honesty, integrity, and ethics are – or should be – the core foundation for which we operate in life.  Yet, as Luigi Zingales points out in his article: “Business School should count ethics as a core course” it appears that all to often those who are at the top of the business food chain seem to forget the core of business fundamentals.

Zingales, in his article, states: “Recent scandals at Barclays, JPMorgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and other banks might give the impression that the financial sector has some serious morality problems. Unfortunately, it’s worse than that: We are dealing with a drop in ethical standards throughout the business world, and our graduate schools are partly to blame.”

The problem – at one level – is academics seem to be more concerned with theory than practical application.  Again, Zingales shares the following:

Most business schools do offer ethics classes. Yet these classes are generally divided into two categories. Some simply illustrate ethical dilemmas without taking a position on how people are expected to act. It is as if students were presented with the pros and cons of racial segregation, leaving them to decide which side they wanted to take.

Others hide behind the concept of corporate social responsibility, suggesting that social obligations rest on firms, not on individuals. I say “hide” because a firm is nothing but an organized group of individuals. So before we talk about corporate social responsibility, we need to talk about individual social responsibility. If we do not recognize the latter, we cannot talk about the former.

I agree!  Ethics theory – while valuable – doesn’t go far enough to teach those who will face practical application what to do and when to do it when faced with pressure and temptation.  Theories are wonderful, but how many of us think about theory when faced with real life challenges in real time.

As a business ethics speaker, I was set up as the keynote speaker at a university in Canada.  My background was hidden from the faculty as the Dean of the Business School…wanted my presentation to impact both the student attendees as well as the faculty guests.  To that end, as we prepared to share dinner together before the presentation, one of the professors asked me a simple question – “What theory of ethics do you follow?”

That question caught me a bit off guard as my mind raced to formulate an appropriate answer.  Then it hit me…  The answer just flowed from my mouth – “The theory that keeps you out of federal prison!”

“Oh” responded the professor, and quickly he found company somewhere else.  Discomfort created by my response is just what needs to take place when teaching ethics.  We, all too often, make ethics some luke warm course to fill a curriculum and fail to teach the real world application of what happens when ethics fail.  Zingales says:

The way to teach these ethics is not to set up a separate class in which a typically low-ranking professor preaches to students who would rather be somewhere else. This approach, common at business schools, serves only to perpetuate the idea that ethics are only for those students who aren’t smart enough to avoid getting caught.

Rather, ethics should become an integral part of the so-called core classes – such as accounting, corporate finance, macroeconomics and microeconomics – that tend to be taught by the most respected professors. These teachers should make their students aware of the reputational (and often legal) costs of violating ethical norms in real business settings, as well as the broader social downsides of acting solely in one’s individual best interest.

So here’s the deal…if your business school isn’t committed to teaching practical ethics then you can’t expect graduates to apply ethics in practical day-to-day applications.  What is practical ethics – perhaps it’s ethics applied in such a manner that it keeps you out of an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs.

Your comments are welcome

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One Response to Business Ethics as a Core Course in Business Schools? What a novel idea…or do you prefer an Orange Jumpsuit and Handcuffs?

  1. [...] Business Ethics as a Core Course in Business Schools? What a novel idea…or do you prefer an Orange… [...]

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