Do Business Ethics Courses Work? the Effectiveness of Business Ethics Education: An Empirical Study

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ABSTRACT

This research study sought to determine the effect of business ethics education on the ethical attitudes of students enrolled in undergraduate business schools. A study of 561 undergraduate students, from 4 private universities, determined that the completion of a business ethics course had no significant effect on the respondent's ethical attitudes. This finding brings into question the value of business ethics courses as a means for improving the ethical attitudes and ethical decision-making among future business leaders.

Reflecting on the ethical attitudes of future business leaders, Albaum and Peterson (2006) note, "Given the so-called ethical and legal lapses that have occurred in the early 2000s in such companies as Enron, WorldCom, Arthur Anderson and Tyco, it is increasingly important to know the ethical perspectives of future business leaders, so that their future behavior can be anticipated" (p. 300). Addressing the need for ethical leadership in corporate governance, Byrne (2002) predicts, "The challenge in coming years will be to create corporate cultures that encourage and reward integrity as much as creativity and entrepreneurship. To do this, executives need to start at the top, becoming not only exemplary managers but also moral compasses for the company" (p. 78). A survey of 1500 participants by the Ethics Resource Center determined that managers who model ethical behavior found a significant reduction of misconduct in the workplace over managers who did not model ethical behavior (ERC, 2003). It would appear that the integrity of those leading organizations, and the ethical behavior of such leaders in the workplace, can have a positive impact on their employees and the organization as a whole.

Business Ethics Education

One approach for developing business leaders with positive ethical values is to attempt to shape their attitudes during their higher education experience. This is often accomplished in university business schools through the requirement of a business ethics course. Schoenfeldt, McDonald and Youngblood (1991) found in a survey of AACSB (Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business International) member schools, that over 90% of the institutions surveyed included business ethics as a significant part of their curriculum. Cowton and Cummins (2003) found that 58% of the 105 UK institutions they surveyed included the teaching of business ethics in their business education programs. Although the exact numbers are unknown, judging from the number of business ethics textbooks sold and published each year, the teaching of business ethics courses is pervasive in many institutions of higher education.

Do Business Ethics Courses Work?

With the prevalence of business ethics education in undergraduate and graduate business programs, it would seem that such education would produce business professionals with higher standards of ethical behavior, however, the effectiveness of business ethics education is subject to debate. Ritter (2006) concludes that there is a great deal of disagreement regarding the trainability of ethics content. She notes, "For those individuals with an ingrained ethical background prior to the college classroom, implementation of an ethics curriculum may be quite effective in supplementing their existing schema" (p. 155). However, she also admits, "For those individuals lacking experience in the ethical components of decision-making, the current level of ethics training provided in business schools is not adequate to make ethics a habit" (p· 155)· In her study designed to measure the moral awareness and moral reasoning of undergraduates taking an Organizational Theory and Behavior course at a mid-sized Southern university, Ritter (2006) found that the positive effects of an ethics training program were found in the women who participated in the study, but not in the men who participated in the study.

Desplaces, Melchar, Beauvais and Bosco (2007) studied the impact of business education on moral judgment and found that students that participate in discussions on ethics in their core business courses exhibited marginal gains in moral competence, but no significant gains in moral reasoning. …