Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room-Using the Enron Film to Examine Student Attitudes towards Business Ethics

By Cox, Pamela L.; Friedman, Barry A. et al. | Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management, January 2009 | Go to article overview

Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room-Using the Enron Film to Examine Student Attitudes towards Business Ethics


Cox, Pamela L., Friedman, Barry A., Edwards, Ann-Lorraine, Journal of Behavioral and Applied Management


ABSTRACT

Publicity from recent scandals has generated increased discussion of the role of business schools in teaching students about ethical behavior. The business ethics literature reveals that business schools can be effective in changing student attitudes towards business ethics. The approach used in this research integrates the teaching of business ethics into an undergraduate organizational behavior course. We outline the use of the film Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room as an intervention to engage student discussion about their attitudes towards business ethics. We report an assessment of the effectiveness of the intervention, and provide suggestions for future research.

Introduction

Recent media attention focused on high profile cases like Enron, Adelphia Communications, WorldCom, and other corporations indicate that high risk taking behavior by top management can rapidly evolve into allegations of corporate fraud committed against company shareholders (Kidwell, Jr. & Kochanowski, 2005, p. 136). Unethical behavior can affect organizational performance and is costly to employers, employees, shareholders, and other organizational stakeholders. The high publicity of recent scandals has generated increased discussion of the role of business schools in teaching students about ethical behavior in the workplace. The collapse of Anderson further emphasized the importance of workplace ethical conduct. That Anderson, among the oldest accounting firms, could so quickly lose its credibility has generated renewed professional self-examination (Molyneaux, 2004). If ethics considers the morality or rightness or wrongness of behavior in terms of organizational, legal, and societal guidelines (Robinson & Bennett, 1995), then business ethics considers what constitutes moral behavior in the workplace. For the p urposes of this research, our goal in the teaching of business ethics is to increase student awareness of ethical issues in the workplace.

Much of the discussion of the role of business schools in teaching business ethics has focused on whether or not the subject is appropriate for inclusion at both the undergraduate and graduate school levels. Some of the press covering the recent corporate and accounting scandals concludes business schools have not sufficiently revised their curricula to cover ethics (Earley & Kelly, 2004). Others argue that ethics cannot be taught in the classroom, that one's upbringing largely determines individual behavior (Stape, 2002) or that ethical dilemmas should be addressed on the job rather than in a business classroom (Petrecca, 2002). Critics also suggest that ethics courses are sometimes created for the sake of appearances with courses providing little more than indoctrination resulting in students' inability to transfer their ethical skills into the business environment (McDonald & Donleavy, 1995). It has also been suggested that the college socialization process may, in fact, be partially to blame for the failure of organizations to respond effectively to unethical behavior in the workplace. Kidwell, Jr. & Kochanowski (2005, pp. 142-143) stated that:

A related roadblock to ethical behavior may be the socialization of the workforce to stay passive (withhold effort) when unethical (and illegal) behaviors should be brought to light. One potential concern is that the socialization process that students undergo in college fosters such passive reactions among future managers. Recent corporate and government scandals took many months, and in some cases years to emerge because of the reluctance of organizational members to blow the whistle. Aside from potential financial losses, managers may fear being labeled as deviants, and such labeling may start or be reinforced in college. Some professors do not tolerate dissent and fail to encourage student challenges to the prevailing orthodoxy. Negative outcomes can also result when students who do not want to be considered deviants do not report their classmates who cheat on tests or plagiarize papers. …

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