There have been a flurry of articles lately about what and how business schools teach business ethics. The most recent, an article written by Judith Samuelson on the HUFF Post Business section states the following: “Research conducted by the Aspen Institute suggests that ethics IS taught in business schools, and, increasingly, with an eye to making it stick by embedding it in orientation programs, “learning journeys,” core course work and hands-on experience.”
It is in the first part of her article that I take exception. As a business ethics speaker and author I see first hand what seems to be the norm for business ethics offerings in b-schools and it’s pathetic – at least that’s my opinion. Samuelson goes on to say, “Business ethics goes by many names and the vast majority of schools in the Institute’s ranking of business schools require ethics or something that goes by the name of “social responsibility,” “social enterprise,” “social impact” or “leadership and values.””
REALLY? Social responsibility? Social enterprise? Leadership and values? Come on…you can call it what you want, but if you don’t teach beyond the theory of what is socially acceptable or how leadership intersects moral norms, you effectively have little more than just fluff! Theoretical fluff…I would call it and that has little impact in the real world when faced with split second decisions that have an impact far beyond the moment.
One clue comes from the inside. Luigi Zingales, a titan of the academy of finance who teaches at the University of Chicago, argues that business education across the disciplines needs to move from a stance of “values neutrality” to one where students are exposed to the moral decisions that permeate the core of business. Zingales suggests we deliver “ethics” in accounting and finance rather than a course labeled Ethics, which is bound to turn off motivated students looking to get ahead.
Interesting paragraph by Samuelson. Intriguing that Zingales wants to hide ethics in some other course because it turns off motivated students who want to get ahead. I have an alternate suggestion… Educate students with the course – “How to avoid an orange jumpsuit and handcuffs” – in other words make ethics real and alive. What do the professors know about the real world of federal prison, how one turns to the dark side and what happens when that happens. Pardon the bluntness, but perhaps students should be scared sh*tless and know the real world implications of their (sometimes misguided) desire to get ahead.
Samuelson shares: To the contrary — research also suggests that the big take away from b-school is the same one that permeates board rooms. Ethics are important, but earnings-per-share is the guiding principle. Remember the ethics handbook distributed to each employee at Enron? The more compelling and well compensated message went something like this: We exist to make money. “Profits,” aka “shareholder value,” is the most important metric. We all benefit when the stock price goes up — and employees who make it happen will receive the most. Damn the torpedoes; full speed ahead. EPS is the main meal. “Ethics” is desert.
Samuelson’s article approaches the education of business ethics in a focuses thought provoking way. Nice article. I, on the other hand, would love to share a good dose of reality into the minds of the students helping them connect the dots between choices and consequences. Perhaps a semester of real world example where the students choose among a set of choices giving them an opportunity to see which one’s result in career destruction and arrest would have far more impact. Maybe we should call it: Career Destruction and Prison – the Ethics Course YOU Won’t Forget!
What do you think Judith?
Photo by Clay Bennett – see claybennett.com