Preparing Business Students to Speak Up

It's time to increase our attention to how we are preparing future business leaders to embrace ethical challenges. By providing opportunities to practice ethical decision-making we can equip our students with the resources that they will need in the workplace.

Preparing Business Students to Speak Up

Volkswagen, FIFA, Turing Pharmaceuticals, Wells Fargo—the list goes on and on. Although these high-profile cases are not the standard in ethical behavior by businesses, they ensure there is no shortage of examples to discuss in a business ethics course, or a wide range of other business classes for that matter. Time and time again, students quickly recognize the ethical issues in these cases and, in most instances, can easily identify when individuals could have, should have, but didn’t speak up.

Nevertheless, many of these same students struggle to apply the learning from these cases to their day-to-day responsibilities in business school and in college. For the same reasons that many employees at these companies failed to speak up, students also hesitate to take action—for a lack of knowing what to do, for a feeling of “it’s not my responsibility” and “I don’t want to get involved,” and especially for fear of retaliation and alienation by one’s peer group. Their sentiments, particularly in regard to retaliation, are validated by what is happening in the workplace. According to the Ethics & Compliance Initiative’s 2016 Global Business Ethics Survey, 76 percent of employees report observed misconduct, but 53 percent of reporters say that they experience retaliation, and the findings indicate that “high rates of reporting correspond with more widespread retaliation.”

If part (or all) of our responsibility as business schools is to prepare aspiring business leaders for positions in business, it’s time to increase our attention to how we are preparing students—our future business leaders—to embrace these ethical challenges, in anticipation of what they will experience in the workplace.

In addition to the course curriculum, we have an opportunity (and arguably, a responsibility) to engage students in this topic outside of the classroom in our business school communities. By raising awareness, providing opportunities to practice ethical decision-making, and encouraging and supporting students to employ the processes and systems in place to confront and report wrongdoing, we can further equip our students with the resources—namely, courage and confidence—that they will need in the workplace. And, as my colleague Linda Treviño, distinguished professor of organizational behavior and ethics at the Pennsylvania State University’s Smeal College of Business, reminds her students, “Ethics is like a muscle.” Students need to strengthen these “moral muscles,” and we need to invest in our students’ ethics workout.

Raise Awareness

First, we need to highlight the ethical challenges that students experience on a day-to-day basis, including in their academic coursework, internship and co-op experiences, and job search process.

Faculty can define what constitutes academic dishonesty in the classroom; for example, are students permitted to work together on assignments, or should they complete their work independently? By clearly defining the rules of engagement in the classroom, students will have a better understanding of what is within the boundaries of the course—and what is not permitted. Relatedly, faculty can explain what students should do if they observe academic misconduct in the course, providing them the necessary resources to practice speaking up.

Furthermore, as staff assist students in their preparation for internship and co-op experiences as well as the job search process, they can define what constitutes unethical behavior in the application process and in the workplace; for example, what if a student believes a recruiter is making advances during an interview, or what if members of a student’s internship team are not pulling their weight on a project? By sharing stories about past interns or former students, staff can highlight the types of ethical dilemmas that the students experienced. Staff can explain what happened and how the student(s) handled the situations—what they did well and what they could have done differently. Most importantly, they can point to students who spoke up about problems and survived the experience.

Alumni and recruiters also can be helpful in highlighting the types of ethical dilemmas they have experienced in the workplace. Through formal or informal speaking engagements, alumni can share their personal stories and best practices for navigating ethical dilemmas in the workplace. By showcasing “everyday” workplace challenges, students will have a better understanding of what to expect; not all dilemmas are headliners, not all dilemmas involve fines or prison time, but most, if not all, dilemmas require employees to “stop and think” and consider what their gut is telling them to do, as Treviño and coauthor Katherine Nelson discuss in their 2014 book, Managing Business Ethics: Straight Talk about How to Do It Right.

At the Penn State Smeal College of Business, for example, we launched a program titled “Donuts & Dilemmas.” Through this initiative, companies take turns sponsoring the event—bringing representatives from their company to campus to share and discuss a wide range of ethical dilemmas from their workplace experiences (and the donuts, of course!). Students attend these small, interactive events to engage with the company representatives and learn about the types of ethical (and legal) challenges that employees, from recent graduates to senior executives, experience on a daily basis. Companies have discussed topics such as sexual harassment, theft, fraud, and substance abuse, to name a few, and on most occasions, the conversation opens up a platform for how to speak up and how to confront and report wrongdoing.


Second, we need to provide students with the opportunities to practice navigating ethical dilemmas. The good news is, students already have many avenues to practice; we just need to remind them of these existing opportunities. Advisers to student organizations can remind students to practice their ethical decision-making skills during leadership election processes, for example. If the students observe a conflict of interest, or if the process seems unfair in some way, students can practice speaking up, confronting the issue head on, and, where needed, involve the adviser. Faculty also can remind students to practice their ethical decision-making in team projects. If a member of a team fails to communicate with the group or deliver his or her responsibilities to the group, students can practice speaking up, sharing their concerns with the group member, and involving the faculty member if necessary. When we remind students of the day-to-day opportunities to practice speaking up and of their responsibilities to do so, students strengthen their responses to navigating ethical dilemmas.

Encourage and Support

Finally, we need to encourage our students to speak up, and we need to support them when they do take action. Where a business school (or university) community has formal systems in place to report wrongdoing, such as a hotline, students should be made aware of these resources during the new student orientation and throughout their college experience. Faculty, staff, advisers, and teaching assistants all need to encourage students to speak up, to openly share their ethical concerns, and, where needed, seek additional support from a trusted faculty or staff member. And when students do speak up, it is critical that faculty and staff provide them with support. For example, faculty and staff might offer to serve as a sounding board for students, or even suggest role-playing a difficult conversation that the student wants (or needs) to have with a friend or group member. It is important that we provide these resources to students to help them develop the courage and confidence to confront ethical issues on a daily basis.

Through these tactics we can begin to further invest in our students’ ethics workout, recognizing it is a challenging proposition. In 2010, the Smeal College worked to strengthen the integrity connection between business and business schools by holding the Partners in Business Ethics Symposium. Since then, other institutions have held the symposium and addressed these topics. In November, the symposium is hosted once again at the Smeal College, and its theme of “Fostering a Speak-Up Culture” brings in experts on this topic who will share their knowledge and help participants build speak-up cultures in business schools and in business. Through symposiums like these, participants from the corporate sector and the business school community can brainstorm ideas to promote avenues for speaking up. Businesses and business schools do not have all the answers, but if we work together to bridge this gap, we can better prepare our students to be ethical leaders in business.

Jennifer Eury Head shotJennifer L. Eury is clinical assistant professor of management and organization at the Smeal College of Business at Penn State, where she also served the college’s honor and integrity director.