Business Ethics, a real life approach for students

A few months ago I read an article titled “Can Business Ethics be Taught?” written by Professor Craig Barkacs.  The article discusses how smart, intelligent and successful public figures have come under scrutiny due to their moral lapses and questionable behavior.  The article continues to discuss how

“Formal ethics training also introduces business leaders to the different levels of moral reasoning.”

This led me to ponder, will teaching business ethics in schools really have any impact on the decisions made in the business world? spitzerSurely politicians, educators, business persons, etc. have all learned what is ‘ethical’ and what is not through the years.  Sitting in a controlled environment, learning textbook definitions of ethical behavior, as defined by the case study, may have little impact once real-life decisions need to be made.
And this exactly is my point of focus.
I agree with the author and feel that business schools should continue to teach ethical practices and decision making to students.  The way that ethics are taught, THAT is what I believe we can emphasize and improve.  I believe realistic cases and tough dilemmas should be discussed in detail, as there are many gray areas that often get neglected in a classroom environment. This can be accomplished for nearly any and every course of study (from Accounting to Zoology).
An example of a tough dilemma is exploring a student’s ethical stance on the topic of for-profit secondary education institutions versus not-for-profit schools.  Since the argument I propose is “can business ethics be taught?,” what better place to start than to evaluate the different types of learning institutions that may be preying on students.  Naturally, some students will feel that for-profit institutions are indeed a great option, while others will feel otherwise.  The ethical dilemma can be geared towards the class subject.
In recent years many concerns have arisen as Profit vs. NonProfit Education Graduation Rateseducation institutions have sprung up and used predatory marketing to take advantage of prospective students.  These schools have a high acceptance ratio, a high drop out ratio, and high financial aid ratio, when compared with traditional public schools.  The argument is that these schools invite students to enroll, apply for financial aid so they may pay the school, and use misleading tactics to bolster their ‘accreditation.’  As business students this dilemma is two-fold; it offers an opportunity to earn great profits, and also misleads prospects in their attempt to better themselves through quality education.  At the end of the day, the students may learn and indeed better themselves, however, they will not receive a technical certificate or degree that is marketable or comparable to other traditionally accredited institutions schools.
This is merely one example that students can discuss; other examples include financial fraud, outsourcing practices, human capital investments, etc. An interesting article published by Mike Nisen at shows how a global company was able to combat unethical behavior after several years of regretful lapses. After reading several case studies on this same topic, one of the common trends I perceived was that while managers understand what is ethical vs. unethical, the lines become blurred whenever they are placed in delicate and not-so-clear scenarios. The world isn’t black and white. There are numerous shades, and spending time early on, practicing and molding our thinking into ways to be more socially responsible is a lesson all schools need to engage.

“We need to make sure our students, at this level, know how to work in the grey areas”

– Sophia Leong, director of the Telfer School of Management’s Executive MBA program at the University of Ottawa

Exposing students to real-life examples of questionable ethical behavior can help the students not only practice scenarios should they find themselves in that situation, but provide guidance on how to deal with such decisions when they arise.  If the adage “practice makes perfect,” then practicing or developing a student’s management style through practical exercises and debates can bolster the student’s confidence in the decision-making process.  An article titled “Learning the ‘grey areas’: EMBA programs forcing professionals to scrutinize business ethics” written by Rebecca Walberg highlights the some of the challenges and benefits of emphasizing and teaching ways to make great decisions when dealing with grey areas. Remember, what may be unethical in the United States, may be an acceptable and normal business practice in Nigeria.

Related Content: The Parable of the Benevolent Uncle

Ethical concernsSo what’s the takeaway? I believe ALL schools should focus time in their curriculum to include ethical behavior training as part of the material covered in each course.  Whether the course is Business Writing, Marketing, or Information Technology, managers will face challenging decisions through their career and preparing students for the possible types of lures they may face while on the job.  Reinforcing business ethics does not end there; companies should invest time to address industry specific behavior and ensure their employees at all levels, are on the same page.
Do you have any examples to share? any comments or recommendations? Feel free to leave a comment below or hit me up on social media 🙂

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