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Business Ethics Writ Large

Global business students define “ethics” very differently.

When we talk about the importance of global business education, most people think about the integration of international business concepts into the curriculum, or opportunities to take students abroad.

Increasingly important, though, is the degree of international diversity in the classroom. A good example is our new Bentley University MBA, which brings together 13 international students from 11 different countries with six domestic students.

Very early in the program, these students had the opportunity to interview a variety of leaders from around the Bentley campus with the purpose of better understanding how they made decisions. A prime topic of conversation was the role that business ethics played in the daily decisions these educators made.

What became quickly apparent is that the notion of “business ethics” meant very different things to different students — depending upon where they were raised and the experiences that they had had to date.  

Domestic students tend to think of business ethics as being primarily about what is “right or wrong” behaviorally.

But an Indian student explained that he was raised to be a “principled man.” Rather than viewing things as being strictly “right or wrong,” his choices address the question of what a principled person would do. He further suggested that what is considered principled in one environment may not be so in another. 

Another student from Africa explained that in her village a person is only as good as their word. What one says or does is assessed within the context of its implication on one’s reputation and that of one’s family. She explained that choices are made in a way not to bring shame to oneself or one’s family.

The real takeaway from the conversation is that the notions of “right or wrong” or “good versus bad” vary considerably across countries, continents and cultures.

And, in the tightly knit and integrated global economy of the 21st century, these perspectives influence commonly accepted business practices and one’s ability to conduct business across geographic or cultural divides.

These perspectives also influence our ability to truly develop a cross-cultural understanding. 

Finally, this illuminating conversation shed light on the fact that — although they shared many things in common — this group of business students brought fundamentally different lenses and filters to what will be a year of shared graduate studies and experiences.

This capacity to develop and effectively use different lenses and filters to address real-world business problems and situations should be exceedingly helpful as they move from the classroom back into the global corporate world — regardless of where their careers take them.

Roy (Chip) A. Wiggins is dean of business and the McCallum Graduate School, and director of the Microfinance Initiative at Bentley University. This article first appeared on Big Think.

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