Can Ethics Education Improve Ethical Judgment? an Empirical Study

By Cloninger, Peggy A.; Seivarajan, T. T. | SAM Advanced Management Journal, Autumn 2010 | Go to article overview

Can Ethics Education Improve Ethical Judgment? an Empirical Study


Cloninger, Peggy A., Seivarajan, T. T., SAM Advanced Management Journal


Ethics scandals and corrupt practices can ruin a business. Can good judgment and ethical decision-making be taught in business schools? While these schools are now trying to incorporate ethics education, few studies have examined the effectiveness of such courses. This study focuses on the influence of successful outcomes on perceptions of ethical behavior. Is a successful person more likely to be considered ethical, regardless of other factors? A statistical analysis of responses from 175 people who were working and also pursuing master's degrees in business supported the hypothesis that a comprehensive course with an ethical focus mitigated bias in judging the ethical standing of others.

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Ethical behavior has interested business researchers for decades (e.g., Akaah and Lund, 1994), but recent ethical scandals in major organizations worldwide (e.g., WorldCom, Adelphia, Parmalat, WIPRO, Sanlu Group) have brought business school curricula under intense scrutiny. Masters of business administration programs have been subject to criticism for failing to develop critical competencies such as decision-making (Rubin and Dierdorff, 2009) and for fostering amoral theories based on opportunistic behavior and lack of trust (Ghoshal, 2005). Business organizations and society alike are demanding that business schools examine their curricula and work toward graduating managers who will perform their jobs in an ethical manner. The primary accrediting organization for business schools has responded to this demand and has indicated that schools should ensure that all students understand the symbiotic relationship between business and society (AACSB International, 2004). Business students themselves also are interested in having classes explore issues related to corporate social responsibility (Net Impact, 2006). Many of the 2009 graduates of the Harvard Business School took a voluntary student-led pledge to "serve the greater good" (Wayne, 2009).

Yet, the effectiveness of education to improve ethical judgment and performance remains in doubt. Many suggest that a business school course is unlikely to make students more ethical decision-makers (Giacalone and Thompson, 2008). However, the differences in the day-to-day ethical judgments of those who have completed required courses covering ethics are not well understood. Much research in ethics has tended to be either prescriptive or focused on surveys regarding perceptions or opinions of ethical performance. Empirical research has often been correlational and exploratory (Tenbrunsel and Smith-Crowe, 2008). Theoretical work has consisted primarily of developing models that propose various personal and organizational variables as the determinants of ethical behavior (Akaah and Lund, 1994). It has been argued that the influence of organizational context is often unrecognized and unappreciated by researchers (e.g., Johns, 2006). Yet, relatively little research has examined whether or not completing a course on ethical decision-making can reduce organizational influences and improve ethical judgment and performance.

Our research addresses this gap in the literature. In particular, this study examines whether or not ethics education reduces the influence of performance outcomes and results in improved ethical judgment. Performance outcome, that is, whether or not an employee is considered successful or unsuccessful on the job, has been found to bias ethical judgments (e.g., Selvarajan and Cloninger, 2009). Those considered successful have been judged to behave more ethically than those deemed unsuccessful. In other words, employees' performance levels have been found to influence judgments of whether they are ethical or not. Furthermore, the respondent's personal beliefs do not affect this finding. That is, the evidence suggests that organizational influences (e.g., job performance levels), can override respondents' personal ethical systems. Since personal ethics are developed over a lifetime, this finding raises the question of whether or not ethics education can help students improve their ethical reasoning skills sufficiently so that their ethical judgments overcome the influence of job performance levels. …

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