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Acting Ethically: Moral Reasoning and Business School Student Behavior

By Buono, Anthony F.; Fletcher-Brown, Donna et al. | SAM Advanced Management Journal, Summer 2012 | Go to article overview

Acting Ethically: Moral Reasoning and Business School Student Behavior


Buono, Anthony F., Fletcher-Brown, Donna, Frederick, Robert, Hall, Gregory J., Sultan, Jahangir, SAM Advanced Management Journal


Among specific individuals in high-profile, U.S. corporations involved in illegal or unethical activities in the past decade, a number were business school graduates. Are the schools failing to instill ethics, or do students arrive predisposed toward immoral or illegal behavior? Adapting Kohlberg 's theory of moral development, a defining issues test (DIT-2) was developed to measure the ethical reasoning of 52 freshmen, while ethical behavior was tested through a trading room simulation. Two dozen of the students had the opportunity to trade on insider information. Results showed that higher scorers on the DIT-2 were less likely to accept and use insider information.

Introduction

Although society continues to place increased emphasis on ethics and corporate conduct, recent events have, once again, shaken faith in our business system. Over the past decade, a disturbing number of well-known, highly admired corporations have fallen into corporate infamy. Although it appears that dubious deal making, excessive risk taking, and questionable accounting and financial practices lie at the heart of many of these problems, the abuses over the last several decades suggest that problems run much deeper, raising concerns about the basic orientation of many of our business executives. While corporate cultures, subcultures, and related pressures can readily influence such misconduct (see Cialdini, Petrova and Goldstein, 2004; Greenberg, 2002), many of these ethical lapses were committed by graduates of our business schools (Kaplan and Kowitt, 2009).

As a result, increased pressure is being placed on business schools to provide more ethics education. Business schools have been challenged to help students develop the skills and tools they need to identify ethical issues, analyze the implications for relevant stakeholders, and provide a foundation for ultimate business decision making. Indeed, a broad array of critics (e.g., Ferguson, et al, 2011; Ghoshal, 2005; Gordon, 2011; Miller, 2009) suggest that much of the underlying blame for recent scandals is based on a lack of ethical sensitivity among managers and on the amoral, shareholder supremacy underpinnings of business education. As a result of such concerns, the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International (AACSB) has increased its emphasis on the inclusion of ethics in business curricula (AACSB, 2004), though it stopped short of mandating a required business ethics course. The UN Global Compact's Principles for Responsible Management Education initiative has called for a basic rethinking of the approach taken in business schools, challenging faculty to emphasize more fully the creation of sustainable value for a broad range of stakeholders. Other professional associations--from the Aspen Institute and the European Foundation for Management Development to Net Impact--are also championing the change, pushing for business-people and students to use their talents to create a more socially inclusive and environmentally sustainable world.

While calls for program reassessments and curricular change in business schools have become prominent (see, for example, Buono, Carteron and Gitsham, 2012; Muff, 2012; Thomas and Cornuel, 2012), Pfeffer (2003) has questioned the extent to which unethical business behavior is a result of the type of theories and models typically taught in business schools. Instead, he proposed that those seeking business degrees may already have personal moral philosophies that are consistent with immoral or amoral business behavior. A recent study by Neubaum et al (2009), however, suggests this may not be the case. Based on Forsyth's (1992) questionnaire measuring personal moral philosophies, Neubaum and colleagues did not find any significant difference between those of incoming business and non-business students. Moreover, they did not find any evidence to suggest that the personal moral philosophies of freshmen business students were different from business seniors, although the seniors were more likely than freshmen to believe that sustainability was important for business and that economic factors were not the only important measures of business performance.

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