Can Ethics Be Taught?

I have taken challenging courses in the last two years on accounting, financial strategy, operations, economics and leadership. I have not taken one on business ethics.

Do top business schools have a responsibility to educate their students in this area? Can ethics even be taught?

In the wake of huge corporate scandals like Enron and Worldcom this was a hot topic several years ago but ethics courses are still not standard fair at most MBA program. A few school make it a requirement for their full time students, some offer elective courses on the subject and others say their professors simply work it into their lectures.

I think we could do better.

Sometimes navigating through ethical dilemmas in business (and life) requires more than common sense and knowing what’s legal, it requires some kind of strategy for thinking through problems that are myriad shades of gray. Balancing politics, responsibility, ego, expectations and the law isn’t always easy and the struggle to do so has led some very smart people down some very dark paths.

We all think we are different and wouldn’t fall prey to peer-pressure, would have noticed the errors, curbed the greed in our colleagues, changed course and averted disaster. But such is the story of all ordinary men. Everyone thinks they are different.  In the heat of the moment, surrounded by others who are all marching in the same direction it is not always so easy to recognize the cliff ahead.

MBA programs provide an opportunity to teach a framework for puzzling through ethical business dilemmas and set a tone.

I struggled to finish that last sentence and finally left it as is. What kind of tone do they set exactly? One of morality? Of right and wrong? Seems like a slippery slope into a muddy pool of very subjective criteria.  Much of the time there isn’t always a definite right or wrong or one single code of conduct that applies to every situation. I do, however, think there is benefit to introducing the discussion of ethics into MBA programs and simply acknowledging the difficulty inherent in many of the decisions we will face over the course of our careers.

We come to business school to bone up on hard skills, and the top programs are great at helping us do that. I think it would also be a great opportunity to talk more about how to work through all the other stuff.

Elizabeth Rogers, an Executive MBA student at the University of Chicago’s Booth School of Business, blogs about her journey through an EMBA program for Poets&Quants. Her earlier posts:

Introducing Elizabeth, an EMBA Student at Chicago Booth

Finding Your Rhythm

School’s Out For Summer

What’s Really Harder Than The Soft Stuff

My Favorite MBA Study Tool: The iPad

Don’t Study

The Data Behind Our Decisions

The Curse of the Take Home Exam

  • Alex Kelley

    Junior officers in the military (USMC in my case) go through ethical training in addition to preparation in combat tactics and procedures for weapon employment.  Lieutenants aren’t assumed to moral blank slates, but the fact that “proper” solutions are discussed with respect to personally challenging situations has shown to help guide someone when the tough times come.  There can be many appropriate answers (hence the quotes) but the tone is set that ethics factor into every aspect of a job.  To install a spirit of “my actions matter” serves the business community as much as it does the military community.  The alternative leaves people consciously or subconsciously thinking that business activities (sales, accounting, marketing, hr, etc.) are amoral and not subjects worthy of personal reflection on their impact beyond a particular company’s bottom line.