Image: Raphael's "School of Athens," via Wikimedia Commons

INTRODUCTION

After each major business scandal, a chorus of voices calls for business schools to work harder to instill ethics into their students. But what exactly should they do? On this page we focus on what business schools can do that may lead to stronger ethical systems in the corporate world. Some common changes business schools have made to strengthen ethical training are:

  • Instituting mandatory courses on ethics, professional responsibility, or corporate social responsibility. (See some syllabi here)

  • Integration of ethical concepts into non-ethics classes, such as accounting and management.

  • Service learning

  • Honor Codes

  • Implementing an oath, publicly sworn

Which ones are likely to work? The research base at present does not allow us to offer firm conclusions, but based on our knowledge of psychology and management education, we believe that the following statements are true:

1) An ethics class on its own, with no support from or integration with other courses or communications from the faculty, is unlikely to have an impact on future behavior, for most students. (This claim is based on the general finding that lessons taught in one context rarely transfer to others.)

2) An ethics class that is integrated with other classes, and with communications from the faculty and deans, and with extracurricular activities, may be an important part of an ethical culture that can be created and instilled during the two years of a typical MBA program, or the 2-4 years of an undergraduate business program. (This is based on the general finding that when ethical values and messages are consistent across domains, young people are more likely to see them as valid, rather than as context specific; see ​ Damon, 1997).

3) An ethics class that is integrated with other classes and communications, and that incorporates some content on ethical systems design, may be even more effective. It may give students not just a personal commitment to ethics, but also provide the tools they need to change the environments they will later work in, to create more ethical organizations as they ascend to leadership positions. (This, at least, is our hope at EthicalSystems.org.)


CONTENTS

Ideas to Apply

Areas of Research

Open Questions

To Learn More


 

IDEAS TO APPLY (Based on research covered below)

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  • Don’t depend on generalization when it comes to ethics education. Indeed, educational interventions rarely generalize; students who learn a skill in one context (such as a math class) often fail to make use of the skill when tested in a different context (such as on the playground). Students might ace an ethics class, but that doesn’t mean they’ll use their knowledge once they leave the classroom.

  • Focus on training students’ “elephants.” In the rider vs. the elephant paradigm the rider is conscious reasoning and the elephant is the great bulk of mental life that is unconscious, intuitive, and automatic. An ethics class directed solely to the rider is unlikely to change behavior. A class that alters the elephant -- or that changes external circumstances that then influences the elephant -- is more promising.

  • Leverage individual and group identity. A course that changes how a student thinks of herself, and of her classmates, has a greater chance of success than one that simply tries to educate the student and impart knowledge and skills.


 

AREAS OF RESEARCH

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  • What are the attitudes of B-school students toward ethics and social responsibility? The major survey of B-school students was done by the Aspen Institute’s Beyond Grey Pinstripes project. Their report -- “Where will they lead?” -- shows that the general trends from 2002 to 2007 were positive. Students showed an increasing desire to have their careers make a positive impact on society, and they showed a decrease in the belief that the primary purpose of a corporation is to maximize shareholder value. Yet there is a disturbing finding, which is that men (but not women) show a drop in their desire to have a positive impact on society, as they move further through their program.

  • Do honor codes reduce cheating? Evidence from years of research suggests that they do (see McCabe, Butterfield, & Trevino, 2012 for a summary). But other systematic approaches to creating an ethical culture can work as well, so it isn’t essential to call the effort an honor code. What is required is an ethical systems approach that incorporates multiple formal and informal systems that are aligned with each other to support students’ ethical identity and behavior.

  • Is character education effective? Much work was done in the 1990s to assess whether character education programs have lasting effects on teenagers. For instance, Berkowitz & Bier (2004) summarizes the extant research and asserts that character education works, although the article does not give evidence of behavioral effects.

  • Is professional ethics education effective? There has been little rigorous study of the behavioral impact of ethics courses in business schools.​ Mayhew & Murphy (2009) examined effects of an ethics education course for accounting students. Their findings “suggest that ethics education does not necessarily result in internalized ethical values, but it can impact ethical behavior." (In other words: making norms clear, and then making people's behavior public, can make people follow good norms. That’s ethical systems design in action!) Also of relevance, ​Lau (2010) reviewed ethics education programs from 1980-2008, along with a non-experimental study looking at undergrad business ethics programs, and found evidence of improvement in moral reasoning.

    Other studies that looked for behavioral effects and failed to find them include:

    • Waples et al., 2009 reviewed evidence from 25 business ethics programs and concluded that, "Overall, results indicate that business ethics instructional programs have a minimal impact on increasing outcomes related to ethical perceptions, behavior, or awareness."

    • Simha, Armstrong, & Albert (2012) found that business ethics education in conjunction with business ethics training had a positive impact on students’ attitudes towards academic dishonesty and cheating; however there was no significant impact of either business ethics education or training on actual cheating behaviors.

  • Giving Voice to Values (GVV) is a widely used approach to teaching values-based leadership. For a discussion of the curriculum and the evidence that it might have measurable impact on later behavior, see this blog post by its creator, Mary Gentile (also, here is a GVV video series done in consort with Ethics Unwrapped).


 

OPEN QUESTIONS

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  • Most of the research and writing on business education has concerned MBA programs. Yet far more students are enrolled in undergraduate business programs. How might the two populations differ, in terms of the best ways to teach ethics?

  • What is the purpose of business ethics education? See Berenbeim’s critique of the idea that the goal is better ethical behavior.

  • How can we assess the effects of ethics classes? How can we follow students for years afterwards, and know if their ethics classes (and other interventions such as honor codes) altered their behavior?

  • How can ethics education be expanded beyond a single course to influence students across the full two years of a typical MBA program? or the years of an undergraduate program.

  • What are the active ingredients of an effective ethics class? What will cause a class to have a lasting impact on attitudes, behavior -- Case studies? Peak emotional experiences? Changes in personal or group identity?

  • Have other types of professional schools found ways to teach ethics or professional responsibility, in ways that have demonstrable behavioral impact?

  • How do education needs change with changes in the social environment such as new technologies, new ways of working, new laws and regulations?


 

TO LEARN MORE:

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  • Christensen et al (2007): good review of how top MBA programs are teaching ethics, comparing ethics with corporate social responsibility and sustainability

  • Trevino & Nelson (2011). An accessible textbook on how to get systems aligned to support an ethical culture. These ideas can be applied not just to corporations but to business schools.

  • More cites to come, including review paper by Howe, Frazier, & Haidt.

Videos

 

This page is edited by Jonathan Haidt and Linda Treviño. Other researchers may have added content.

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Miscellaneous Links & References 

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  • Delaney & Sockell (1992): survey of business school graduates; correlational data suggest that ethics training programs in companies are related to lower levels of unethical behavior.

  • Waples et al., 2009 reviewed evidence from 25 business ethics programs and concluded that, "Overall, results indicate that business ethics instructional programs have a minimal impact on increasing outcomes related to ethical perceptions, behavior, or awareness."

  • Simha, Armstrong, & Albert (2012) found that business ethics education in conjunction with business ethics training had a positive impact on students’ attitudes towards academic dishonesty and cheating; however there was no significant impact of either business ethics education or training on actual cheating behaviors. 

  • Lau (2010) reviewed ethics education programs from 1980-2008, along with a non-experimental study looking at undergrad business ethics programs. They found evidence of improvement in moral reasoning.

  • How can we assess the effects of ethics classes? How can we follow students for years afterwards, and know if their ethics classes altered their behavior?

  • How can ethics education be expanded out beyond a single course to span the full two years of a typical MBA program?

  • What are the active ingredients of an effective ethics class? What will cause a class to have a lasting impact -- Case studies? Peak emotional experiences? Changes in personal or group identity?

  • Christensen et al (2007): good review of how top MBA programs are teaching ethics, comparing ethics with corporate social responsibility and sustainability.

  • Teaching Behavioral Ethics, by Robert Prentice.