Business Ethics education – moving beyond what’s illegal…how about focusing on choices and consequences!

For the past several days I’ve been noticing a series of articles about Business Ethics education and what should be taught.  Today I see Felix Salmon’s article: Business ethics need to move beyond what’s illegal where he says we should be more worried about unethical behavior in general rather than just teaching how to avoid criminal behavior.  I agree.  However, I would challenge Salmon in his belief that Business Ethics education even teaches about unethical criminal behavior.  From my experience speaking to a number of business schools as a business ethics speaker, I have found in polling students that the level of education related to business ethics centers around ethical theories rather than practical real life application – whether criminal or not.

Salmon shares the following: There are interesting ethical debates to be had as to where to draw the line: for instance, all those “free offers” which require you to hand over your credit-card details and then bill you regularly unless you cancel. They prey on cognitive limitations, I’d say, and are less ethical than companies which don’t do that. Should business-school professors tell their students that they should avoid implementing such schemes? I don’t know. But I do think that acting ethically, even if such actions are legal and don’t maximize profits, is something that many more business-school students should be encouraged to consider.

I find it interesting that Salmon’s example implies a certain judgment regarding the rightness or wrongness of certain actions.  For example, if I ask a group of people is it ethical to kill someone, the majority would say a resounding NO.  But, if your child were being attacked and in imminent life threatening danger, would it then be ethical to kill the perpetrator – I find the answer becomes a resounding YES.  So…ethics are based on the rightness or wrongness is certain situations.  Back to Salmon’s example.  Is it ethical to offer your free credit report with hidden language that you’ll be updated monthly automatically with a charge to your credit card?  Salmon seems to judge NO.  I say it is a function of the business you’re in.  If that is your business model and that of your competitor, then it would be challenging to find a lack of ethics in a model that works.  Sure…there are those who think such a model should be banned, but until it is…it is legal and ethical.  No different than selling spirits or cigarettes.  Both are bad for you and thereby potentially unethical to sell, but unethical – NO!

However, at the risk of getting off track from Salmon’s fine article…it would seem that the point of teaching more than just legal and illegal makes sense.  The question for me is – are we teaching legal and illegal and exposing the choices made have consequences that follow?  I don’t think so…at least not nearly enough.  Theories are fine, but practical application teaching is far more effective in my opinion.  For example, I was consulting with a fellow just a week ago who was convicted of conspiracy.  Here’s the simple truth, if a company (or people within the company) conduct unethical illegal acts and you don’t report it then you may be found guilty of conspiracy.  Seems to me to be more of a deterrent to unethical behavior if folks know the dire consequences that follow unethical and illegal behavior.

What are your thoughts?

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