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Can Business Ethics Be Taught?


Can Business Ethics Be Taught?

If executives at the C-Suite level can feel pressure to cut corners, what’s a recent graduate to do?

Over the course of our careers, virtually all of us will be faced with an ethical quandary. It could be pressure from a boss to “hit the numbers.” It could be arm-twisting to “be a team player” when dealing with questionable supplier practices. Or it could be our own rationalizations for looking the other way — “Everyone is doing it” or “This isn’t my responsibility.”

Indeed, the world of business can be murky at times.

We’ve seen this in recent scandals, even when CEOs argued that they weren’t aware of any accounting irregularities as their CFOs were testifying that they were under intense pressure from their bosses to make the financial situation look better than it actually was.

If executives at the C-Suite level can feel this kind of pressure, what’s a recent graduate to do?

As business professors, I believe we can help our students develop a more nuanced world view, especially since most bosses will be far more subtle in their demands and expectations — with mostly implied requests to act unethically.

There is a lingering question as to whether ethics can be taught, however; and there are certainly some clear limitations as to what we can teach and learn in the classroom when it comes to honesty and character.

 > Listen to Prof. Buono discuss teaching ethics on Bloomberg Radio.

One of the challenges is making sure we don’t encourage naïve eclecticism by having business students peer through the lens of different ethical theories. This approach is very effective within a philosophy course, but the result is a pick-and-choose approach to ethics that can be used to rationalize just about any action you’d like. And business students, of course, especially those in the more quantitative-oriented functions, seek out the “right” answers.         

In the classroom, there also tends to be a limited focus on misconduct; and there’s a misnomer that ethics is always good business. While the latter might be true over the long run, following an ethical course can have its costs in some instances.

Another issue: it’s all too easy to take the high road within the comfortable confines of the classroom, when there is nothing at stake. Students often respond to such cases in a highly self-righteous manner, frequently to the point of righteous indignation.

Finally, we must be aware of the “responsibility gap” — students are not CEOs, or people at the top of organizational hierarchies, but we often try to teach ethics from that lofty position.

The bottom line is that it’s questionable whether we can instill the “right” set of values in our students; but, rather than preaching what’s “right” or “wrong,” I believe we can enlighten students, so they pursue a more reasoned approach in their decision making.

One way to draw this out is by having students role-play different stakeholders, making these issues as real as possible through hands-on experiences, community engagement and service-learning.

It is also important to stress what might be thought of as the ethics of the mundane. Not all ethical challenges are massive dilemmas that emerge occasionally. The essence of ethical reasoning is to recognize the extent to which these challenges are embedded in the day-to-day realities of our lives. Illustrating moral courage, where people step up to do the right thing on a regular basis,  can also help in “giving voice” to this everyday value, as my colleague, Mary Gentile, would say.

Students won’t necessarily find any of this very easy, especially those students who are looking for the “right” answer. But, as reflected in the work of our Center for Business Ethics, we can make them think:

  • Have I looked at the problem from the perspective of all affected parties?
  • Who will be helped, and who will be harmed?
  • What alternative courses of action do I have?
  • Which outcomes are consistent with my values and duties?
  • What kind of results can I expect if the decision sets a precedent and becomes the general rule?
  • Am I confident that my decision will seem as reasonable over a long period of time as it seems now?

At the end of the day, we need to ensure that our students see ethics as an inherent part of, not a tangential addition to, business.

If we can achieve this much, we will have achieved something very meaningful.

Tony Buono is professor of Management & Sociology at Bentley University, and Coordinator, Bentley Alliance for Ethics and Social Responsibility

See all articles in Business Ethics.


Ethics is concerned with “doing the right thing” in terms of morals, fairness, respect, caring, sharing, no false promises, no lying, cheating, stealing, or unreasonable demands on employees and others, etc. In addition, business ethics calls for corporate social responsibility (CSR) and addressing social problems such as poverty, crime, environmental protection, equal rights, public health and improving education. We need a practical approach, rather than a philosophical one (as discussed later), with “leadership by example.” Business decisions often concern complicated situations, which are neither totally ethical nor totally unethical. Therefore, it is often difficult to “do the right thing,” contrary to what many case studies will have you believe! For instance, in a proposed sale, is it the seller’s duty to disclose all material facts regarding the product/service in question or is it the buyer’s responsibility to find out the pros and cons of what he or she is getting into? Should the seller answer each question exactly as it was asked, and ignore some pertinent information? Or should he or she merely address the spirit of the question? Is the buyer responsible for conducting due diligence, including checking out the pros and cons of buying products/services offered by the competition? In the light of real world constraints, is it really feasible to draw upon the teachings of Socrates, Aristotle, Plato and other philosophers before making a decision in every single situation? Ethics training/teaching can raise ethical IQs and monitor behavior, but it is difficult to alter the basic nature of individuals such as Bernie Madoff, Conrad Black and Vincent Lacroix. Ethics is conscience-based, knowledge-based and attitude-based, and not suited to some individuals, who, by their very nature, have consistently demonstrated selfishness and greed. Maxwell Pinto, Business Consultant and Author.

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