Can Business Ethics Be Taught? ; Post-Enron, Business Schools Are Boosting Ethics Courses. but Critics Say Book Learning Won't Change Much

By MacDonald, G Jeffrey | The Christian Science Monitor, March 21, 2007 | Go to article overview

Can Business Ethics Be Taught? ; Post-Enron, Business Schools Are Boosting Ethics Courses. but Critics Say Book Learning Won't Change Much


MacDonald, G Jeffrey, The Christian Science Monitor


Eager to supply companies with leaders who clearly know right from wrong, business schools are investing heavily in courses and centers where ethics are debated day and night.

But according to experts in executive behavior, all that time, talent, and treasure spent on ethics education is unlikely to change the way top managers behave in the workplace.

Touching off this debate among consultants and academics are survey results published by the Journal of Business Ethics earlier this year. A team of five researchers investigated programs at 50 top-ranked master of business administration (MBA) programs in the United States and abroad.

Among the findings:

* One in three programs requires course work in ethics, sustainability, and corporate social responsibility.

* The number of stand-alone ethics courses in MBA curricula has increased by 500 percent since 1988.

* Thirty-nine of the 50 schools have a center dedicated to ethics, corporate social responsibility, or sustainability.

These developments at top-tier schools reflect trends unfolding across the broader landscape of business education, says John Fernandes, president and CEO of the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB International), which counts 1,100 member schools in 71 countries. In his opinion, the focus on ethics is sure to pay future dividends in the corporate world in terms of fewer instances of lying, stealing, and other forms of malfeasance.

"What really causes behavioral change [among future business executives] are changes in curriculum and how one has an outlook of business, and that's where business schools come in," Mr. Fernandes says. "Business schools have a much greater long-term impact on the change of thinking of corporate leaders and managers than do legislation and media coverage."

Ethics education will eventually have an impact akin to that of entrepreneurial education, Fernandes says. After its inception in the early 1970s, it produced a generation of nonbureaucratic corporate leaders, he says. But consultants who focus on executive performance and ethics aren't persuaded that readings, lectures, and discussions are making much difference - or that they will in years to come.

"It's unrealistic to expect people's behavior is going to change because they sit in classes," says Marshall Goldsmith, an executive coach based in San Diego and an adjunct lecturer at Dartmouth College's Tuck School of Business. "Is there any proof in any executive education ... that anyone who went to any course ever changed any behavior as measured by anyone else over any period of time? Not that I know of."

Mr. Goldsmith and others concede that new emphases on ethics in business schools send a message to future managers that ethics are important, even in the corner office. But, they caution, expectations for a big impact from these programs are pie-in-the- sky thinking.

Business ethics as a course of study traces its roots to the mid- 1970s, but only over the past five to 10 years has the field grown rapidly. That's according to Michael Hoffman, executive director of the Center for Business Ethics at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., and a coauthor of the recent study. He traces its growth largely to two factors: tougher regulations and scrutiny in the press. Together, they have proliferated demand for corporate compliance departments, ethics officer positions, and ethics-savvy business- school grads.

"Higher education, especially after Enron [collapsed], realized it hadn't done enough" in ethics, sustainability, or corporate social responsibility, Mr. Hoffman says. Now "the trend is to integrate the three themes throughout the curriculum so it becomes habitual and becomes part of the thinking of a business executive."

Role models, not courses, are needed

People who coach organizations and executives on ethics, however, say the academic approach doesn't work. …

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