Teaching Ethical Decision-Making to Students of Small Business

Article excerpt

ABSTRACT

Today's news media are once again filled with stories concerning the escalating levels of ethics violations in American business. Although much of the concern is directed at large corporation, in the day-to-day activities of small business, owners and mangers face ethical dilemmas and necessary decisions which may compromise their ethical reasoning for the health of the business. There is increasing evidences that small business managers may in fact face greater pressure than big business to act unethically or compromise principles given their lack of resources and competitive environment.

With over ninety-five percent of American business classified as small business, business and public leaders are turning to our educational systems to begin a renewed emphasis on ethical reasoning in their curricula. Yet, there is little agreement as to what methods of educational intervention are most effective in improving ethical reasoning. The focus of this study was to determine the effectiveness of classroom experiences intended to facilitate the development of ethical reasoning skills in the training of students of small business and entrepreneurship. Implications of this study are discussed along with recommendations for the use of a discussion teaching style in a dedicated class in applied ethics in small business, and longitudinal studies to measure the effectiveness of these educational interventions.

INTRODUCTION

Officials and managers have been paying more attention to ethical issues in recent years due in part to increases in external controls and to the media's increased attention to publicintegrity issues. Another factor drawing attention to ethical issues in small business is the everincreasing use of new technology and a dramatically changing environment in which small businesses operate, both demographically and politically (Welsh & Birch, 1997). Margaret Blunden (1984, p.418) observed that "science, technology and industry have come to form a positive feedback system of accelerating change, and the pace of technological change means that increases in what is possible run ahead of public debates about what is desirable". Finally, as reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education article, "The Ethics of Business Schools', "the idea that the most important goal of business is to maximize wealth has permeated the whole notion that business is about profit and competition and trying to defeat your opponent; while ethics implies that there's some social good at stake, and if you worry about social good, you'll end up being clobbered by the competition" (The Chronicle, 2002, p. 6). Even students of Small Business and Entrepreneurship learn that their careers are made or broken on whether they can come up with the next innovation or creative break-through. Thus, we should not be surprised by these stunning failure rates among small and start-up businesses. This is what we taught our students to do.

This study examines the effectiveness of class room experiences intended to facilitate the development of ethical reasoning skills utilizing data from the entrepreneurship emphasis area program, training students in the Business Administration degree program offered by the University of Missouri at Kansas City (UMKC). UMKC's Small Business Management Program does not contain a class specifically to develop ethical reasoning skills. Rather, it includes several courses which incorporate ethical reasoning. This is consistent with Kohlberg's (1976) concept of content related moral development. A major tenet of Kohlberg's theory is that moral reasoning occurs in sequential process and progresses through six stages. As a person matures, they will progress through the various stages of moral reasoning without the benefit of formal training. Educators have long been influenced by these theories and have developed educational interventions that attempt to facilitate students' understanding of justice and cooperative reciprocity, the basis of the more advanced levels of moral reasoning. …