Yes, You Can Teach Business Ethics: A Review and Research Agenda

By Williams, Scott David; Dewett, Todd | Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies, Winter 2005 | Go to article overview

Yes, You Can Teach Business Ethics: A Review and Research Agenda


Williams, Scott David, Dewett, Todd, Journal of Leadership & Organizational Studies


In the face of continuing doubt as to the value of teaching business ethics, evidence is reviewed suggesting that the endeavor is a worthy one. Specifically, we examine three common concerns raised by various stakeholders as to the viability of teaching business ethics. We conclude that these concerns are not well founded. Next, we describe three major goals from the literature related to teaching ethics: enhancing ethical awareness and sensitivity, promoting moral development, and appreciation of and skill handling complex ethical decision making. Third, we consider the empirical evidence to date addressing these goals. Finally, we consider directions for future research and offer several testable research propositions.

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Business ethics education has become commonplace in a variety of forms. These include ethics courses, ethics components of traditional functional courses, and different types of service learning projects (e.g., AACSB, 2005; Weber & Glyptis, 2000; Weber & Sleeper, 2003) designed to promote behavioral, managerial and/or cognitive competence (Rossouw, 2002). Nonetheless, critics of business ethics education remain vocal. Business school stakeholders are often skeptical that ethics education can be efficacious as a component of student curriculum. Business ethicists, for example, have noted a common belief of MBA faculty that, since their students are adults, they are too mature to be taught ethics (Hindo, 2002). Other observers point to the many recent corporate scandals as evidence that business ethics cannot be taught (Berenbeim, 2002). A Business Week survey of over 2700 readers found that business people question the utility of business ethics education, and the majority of the respondents said that ethics education is better taught outside of the business school (Business Week Online, 2003). Thus, it is clear that stakeholder skepticism represents an obstacle to the acceptance, prioritization, and development of effective business ethics education.

This paper offers an initial attempt to respond to stakeholder concerns by addressing four key issues. First, we will note three common stakeholder concerns regarding the utility of teaching ethics in the business school. We argue that these concerns have little merit. While proper education cannot prevent any and all unethical behavior, it is a vital component of a complex system that determines whether a person or group will behave ethically or unethically. Next, we identify three important goals for ethics education from the literature that are particularly relevant for business school students. Third, we review empirical research addressing each goal. While we find great room for advancing the study of teaching business ethics, the review is clear--you can teach business ethics. Finally, we recognize that the existing literature, while promising, leaves many questions unanswered. Additional effort is required to clarify and communicate the goals of business ethics education and additional research is needed to determine how best to teach ethics in the business school. Consequently, we conclude with several thoughts for future work in this area and include several testable research propositions.

Common Stakeholder Concerns

It is often stated that you can't teach business ethics. While many reasons are given, three main explanations seem to capture this sentiment. Some believe that by the time students enroll in college-level business courses their values have already been formed, rendering ethics education a waste of time. Others have argued that business is best conducted as a self-interested venture, suggesting that ethics are not of prime importance in a business context. Finally, others point to the failure of ethics training programs provided by businesses to prevent their employees' unethical behavior. These themes, and others, have been discussed in the literature (e.g., Sims, 2002; Toffier, 2003; Velasquez, 1998; Wilkes, 1989). …

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