An Ethical Education

Discovering what and how students learn in ethics courses enables professors to design even more effective courses.
An Ethical Education

Candidates with unsavory resumes might want to think twice before applying to The Wharton School or the University of California at Berkeley. In the last few years, each of these institutions has organized a system of background checks to weed out untruthful or otherwise unethical applicants to their business schools. Reportedly, Berkeley’s Haas School of Business rejected about five percent of the initial candidates for fall 2003 because these background checks revealed inaccuracies on resumes. Some applicants fudged work dates to conceal layoffs, for instance, or engaged in other forms of fibbing.

It’s hard to blame these elite schools for sifting out liars and cheats. In today’s environment of corporate scandal, many business and political leaders have pointed to business schools as the logical institutions to instill ethics in today’s executives. With the background checks, Haas and Wharton are attempting to emphasize the importance of ethics to applicants for the next year’s class before they’re even enrolled.

While many schools have been focusing on ethics education, opinion is divided on the best way to teach the topic. Should ethics be covered in a stand-alone class or infused into a number of relevant functional courses? Should such courses be required of all students? And even after ethics courses have been added to the curriculum, how can we be sure we are teaching students what we wish them to learn?

To answer that final question, one of my colleagues and I, both professors at the University of Georgia, have been conducting student surveys for three years. Our focus has been the stand-alone business ethics course taught at the undergraduate level. While MBA ethics courses get more media coverage, undergraduate ethics courses are no less vital and affect larger numbers of business students.

With the study, we wanted to answer three questions: What were students learning in business ethics courses? How were they learning? Compared to other classes, how valuable were these classes in preparing students for their careers? With this information, we knew we would be better equipped to deliver an ethics education that would help prepare students for their careers in the corporate world.

Learning about Ethics

To find what students were gleaning from their ethics courses, we asked them to rank seven possible outcomes of their classroom experience. Students indicated that they were learning the following, in order of importance:
1. Greater awareness of the ethical aspects of a business situation.
2. Ethical concepts that will help me analyze decisions.
3. Ethical principles that can help me make better decisions.
4. Ways to be a more ethical person.
5. Reasons my classmates see things so differently.
6. Reasons my classmates see things so similarly.
7. I’m not sure what I learned in this class.

Since a key goal of an ethics education is to help students perceive ethical issues that might not be readily apparent, it seemed logical to us that awareness would rank highest. In fact, even awareness sometimes requires moral imagination—the ability to perceive that a web of competing economic relationships is also a web of moral relationships. Potential ethical dilemmas are not always immediately obvious; often they must be searched out by someone attuned to complex situations. We believe that an ethics education is successful if it can teach students to develop a sensitivity to such situations—and a willingness to explore them.

The fact that ethical concepts ranked second indicated to us that our students generally appreciated, if not understood, their importance. Concepts are descriptive. In an ethics class, they include ideas such as “integrity strategy,” “descriptive versus normative ethics,” “stakeholder management,” “business ethics,” and “moral development.” These concepts can be extraordinarily useful to students in their careers since they often act as frameworks or models that help executives in decision making and analysis.

By contrast, principles are more abstract; and students sometimes find it difficult to apply them in practical situations. Ethics textbooks generally explore three key principles—rights, justice, and utilitarianism—and some ethics educators also discuss the Golden Rule. I found it encouraging that, despite the difficult and abstract nature of ethical principles, students ranked them as third in importance among the lessons they learned in ethics class.

Equally encouraging was that “how to be a more ethical person” was ranked fourth. Quite often, students seem to resist this as a goal in an ethics class. It sounds neither academic nor fashionable to say that a course is teaching students to be more ethical, as it implies some deficiency that must be overcome. However, this ranking suggests that students might not be entirely resistant to the idea.

What students also learn in ethics class is that some of their classmates view topics much differently than they do, which is an essential truth for managers attempting to resolve ethical dilemmas in the workplace. Most often, students come to this realization through case study discussions, when they discover that not everyone else has responded to a particular set of circumstances in the same way that they have. Realizing that the world is full of people with differing viewpoints—a choice ranked fifth by students in this survey—is much more important than realizing that some people have the same viewpoint, a choice ranked sixth.

It was a huge relief to see that the lowest-ranked item on the list was “I’m not sure what I learned in this class.” It was a gamble even to put this item on the questionnaire. However, since the questionnaires were completed anonymously, I believe that this ranking reflected honest answers.

Classroom Approach

Just as important as discovering what students learned was discovering how they learned. We asked students which teaching and learning methods were most effective as they studied ethics, and they ranked the choices this way:
1. Lectures/presentations by the instructor.
2. Instructor-led discussions after student case presentations.
3. My own reading of texts/articles prior to class.
4. Studying for and taking the exams.
5. Case presentations by student groups.
6. My own reading and studying of cases prior to class.

While modern educational theory holds that hands-on learning is best for students, these students obviously preferred professor-directed learning when the topic was ethics. This might have been because they know very little about ethics before entering the course, so they are willing to defer to their instructors’ knowledge on this particular topic.

The students also seemed skeptical of their fellow students’ ability to present worthwhile case studies and unsure of their own ability to read and study on the topic outside of class. While this might just reflect the fact that they don’t put much effort into preparing for case discussions, it might also underscore the notion that they feel unsure of themselves in the arena of ethics. The guidance of an experienced instructor appeared to be welcome.

In any case, students seem to value case studies and discussions, since they give these high marks in end-of-course evaluations. It’s likely they find case studies valuable both because they see the importance of the team-building experience and because case discussions give them a chance to explore others’ points of view.

Once the data from these two sets of questions were analyzed, I began to revise the structure of my ethics course. Other studies have indicated that students prefer case studies centering around names they recognize, such as WalMart and Nike, despite the fact that disguised cases with unidentifiable names are often better learning platforms. While keeping case studies in the ethics course, I have eliminated the group presentation of cases; I now lead discussions myself. In addition, I put more importance on my own lectures. In fact, I make a short presentation, then I hold a dialogue with the students. I continue alternating lectures and dialogues throughout the class period.

The Value of Ethics

We still wanted to learn how valuable students considered their ethics courses in comparison to other management courses, particularly as they thought about their future careers. The questionnaire asked them to rank six required classes in order of importance, and our students responded:

1. Management 4. Finance
2. Business Ethics 5. Accounting
3. Marketing 6. Economics

Since the ethics course is required for management majors and is an elective for other business majors, most sections are composed of management students. Therefore, it didn’t surprise us that management courses are considered to be of the greatest value. Likewise, these management majors often are less interested in quantitative finance and accounting courses, so it’s also logical that they would rank those courses low while ranking softer skills of ethics and marketing high. Nonetheless, it was encouraging for us to see that undergraduate management majors regarded ethics classes as the second most valuable course they will take in school.

I think it would be intriguing to ask the same question of finance, accounting, and economics majors, who sometimes see soft skills as less relevant to their careers. Recent accounting and finance scandals, however, make it clear that ethics are essential even to executives in these fields.

The Debate Continues

Despite surveys such as mine, I realize that many management educators will still be grappling with a basic question: Can business ethics really be taught? The question is debated at meetings held by organizations such as AACSB International, the Society of Business Ethics, the Social Issues in Management Division of the Academy of Management, and the International Association for Business and Society. Even 2,000 years ago, philosopher Socrates argued the issue with his fellow Athenians. He believed that ethics consisted of “knowing what we ought to do,” and he asserted that this knowledge could and should be taught.

Maybe the appropriate question is not whether ethics can be taught, but whether ethics can be learned. Considering my own personal experiences, I would say the answer is “yes.” People who doubt it should think about what they believed was right and acceptable when they were teenagers, and compare those beliefs to the ones they hold today. Case closed.

The next question, then, would be one of pedagogy: Can business ethics be learned in the classroom? My survey indicates to me that they can. While this study was limited in scope, I believe it accurately portrays how students perceive their ethics courses, not only in terms of what they learn, but in terms of how ethics will affect their business careers. I feel it is essential to understand what methods students respond to and how professors can reach students more effectively. Armed with that information, we can make sure our students leave their undergraduate studies with a firm grasp on how to behave ethically in the corporate world.

Archie B. Carroll is professor of management at the University of Georgia’s Terry College of Business in Athens. He also holds the Robert W. Scherer Chair of Management and Corporate Public Affairs and is director of the Nonprofit Management and Community Service Program.