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The Challenge of Instilling Integrity

Tony Buono

When asked in Bentley’s Preparedness Survey what they most want in new millennial hires, business decision makers identified “integrity” as the top quality.

But can integrity be taught? 

By way of background, the Bentley PreparedU research study revealed that employers want a mix of “hard” professional competencies and “soft” or “civic” skills that include communication, leadership, and problem-solving. Another national survey of 318 companies, conducted in 2013 by Hart Research Associates for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, also found that nearly all these firms (93 percent) highly value a prospective employee’s ability to think critically, communicate clearly and solve complex problems. And more than 90 percent seek to hire candidates who demonstrate sound ethical judgment and integrity.

Given the litany of headline-grabbing scandals — Enron, Madoff, Worldcom, BP, SAC Capital Advisors, GlaxoSmithKline, Merrill Lynch and so many more — it’s not surprising that today’s business leaders are concerned with ethics and integrity.

At Bentley, part of our role as business professors is to give students the tools they need to launch successful careers and to meet the ethical challenges they will face when pressured to “cook the books,” or look the other way when dealing with questionable supplier practices, or justify improper conduct because “Everyone is doing it.”

That said, there are lingering questions as to whether ethics can be taught. There are clear limitations to what we can teach and what students can learn in the classroom when it comes to honesty and character.

One challenge is avoiding the temptation to have business students peer through the lens of different ethical theories. Eclecticism, using a pick-and-choose paradigm, is appropriate in a philosophy course as it illustrates different theories and points us in directions that we might not have considered. But it is naïve when applied to business ethics because it can be used to rationalize just about any action. And business students, especially those in quantitative-oriented functions, seek the “right” answers. 

Another challenge is to avoid focusing exclusively on misconduct and assuming that good ethical practice is always good for business. The latter might be true over the long run, but following an ethical course can have costs in many instances. It’s all too easy to take the high road within the comfortable confines of the classroom, when nothing is at stake. So it’s no surprise that students often respond to cases of misconduct with self-righteous indignation.

Finally, we must be aware of the “responsibility gap” between students and CEOs and other senior executives and avoid teaching ethics to students only from perspectives that apply to those at the top of organizational hierarchies.

While it is questionable that we can instill a proper set of ethical values in our students by preaching what’s “right” or “wrong,” I believe we can enlighten them and equip them to pursue a reasoned approach in making decisions.

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.

We should 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 recognizing the extent to which such challenges are embedded in the day-to-day realities of our lives and our work. Illustrating moral courage, where people step up to do the right thing, can help in “giving voice” to this praiseworthy value, as my colleague, Mary Gentile, has said.

Students, especially those looking for the “right” answer, may not find any of this easy. But, as reflected in the work of Bentley’s 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 a general rule?
  • Am I confident that my decision will seem as reasonable over a long period of time as it seems now?

The bottom line is we can best prepare our students for the challenges they will face by ensuring that they view ethics as an inherent part of, not a tangential addition to, business. That should be our goal.

Anthony F. Buono is Professor of Management and Sociology, and founding director of the Bentley Alliance for Ethics and Social Responsibility, which he oversaw from 2003 to 2013.

*This article draws from an earlier 2013 Bentley Impact piece, “Can Business Ethics Be Taught?