Achieving ethical clarity through dialogue
By Dana Radcliffe
No one doubts whether management schools should teach accounting – or finance or marketing. These disciplines provide knowledge and skills essential to a company's operations. Moreover, MBA programs realize that today's managers need to understand at least the basics of the main functional areas of business. Hence, in addition to electives in areas of particular interest, management students take required courses in the "core" disciplines. But what about business ethics? Where does that subject belong in an MBA curriculum? Is it something all students should be required to study? If so, how should a management school go about teaching ethics to future business leaders?
After Enron, WorldCom, Tyco, and dozens of other high-profile scandals of recent years, no one can seriously question the importance of ethical conduct in business. Such cases are dramatic reminders that poor ethical judgment and lack of integrity are dangerous liabilities. They pose risks relating not only to legal costs but also to reputational loss and damage to vital relationships with investors, customers, employees, and other stakeholders. It's no wonder, then, that in surveys of corporate recruiters about the qualities they look for in new MBA hires, integrity is always near the top of the list. Nor should it be surprising when business leaders such as General Electric's CEO Jeff Immelt and Vanguard Funds founder John Bogle give public speeches on "virtue" and why it matters in the corporate world. (You can view the speech Bogle delivered at the Johnson School on corporate responsibility and integrity on the Johnson School's Web site at www.johnson.cornell.edu/news/media/videofiles.html.) If moral character and sound ethical judgment are in fact crucial managerial attributes, then shouldn't ethics be an integral component of an MBA curriculum?
The conviction that management schools should foster good judgment and a commitment to ethical values is widely shared. Jeffrey Garten notes that when he was dean of the Yale School of Management the question most often put to him by people outside the university was "whether business schools were doing enough to instill the right values in their students." In their annual rankings of MBA programs, the Wall Street Journal and U.S. News & World Report consider a school's attention to ethics. The accreditation body for business schools (the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business, or AACSB), referring to "the crisis in business ethics," urges schools to strengthen the role of ethics in the curriculum. In a 2004 report, an AACSB task force warns against "assuming the majority of students are adequately prepared to meet the ethical challenges of the modern workplace." Here at the Johnson School, development staff report that potential donors often ask what we are "doing in ethics" – a question also asked by recruiters and prospective students.
When an MBA program approaches the task of "teaching ethics," some of the challenges it faces are due to the nature of ethics itself as a subject. Most notably, ethics has no body of technical knowledge possessed by experts who convey it to students lacking such knowledge. Rather, as a field of inquiry, ethics is distinguished by the questions it pursues – questions, broadly speaking, about how we ought or ought not to treat each other. Thus, business ethics asks about the rightness or wrongness of corporate conduct, the obligations of decision makers, the rights of stakeholders, and so on. Such questions call for careful reflection – the weighing of reasons for and against possible responses – leading to moral judgments. The best way to test the soundness of these judgments is to state and try to defend them in thoughtful dialogue with others – or, in the words of business ethicist Lynn Paine, in "live interchange among informed and inquiring minds." Besides helping participants think more critically about ethical quandaries, skillfully facilitated discussions can sharpen their ability to recognize such issues, which are often obscured by the routines and pressures of a competitive business environment. These exchanges can also strengthen integrity, both by increasing appreciation of other people's perspectives and by enforcing consistency in one's own moral judgments.
Given the goal of creating opportunities for students (with the Socratic assistance of professors) to take part in probing discussions of tough moral choices that can confront corporate managers, how should an MBA program proceed? The Johnson School believes that, with adult students, ethics education should focus not on trying to inculcate basic values, but rather on equipping students with concepts and questions that will help them make sound decisions, and giving them practice in applying these tools to cases in different functional areas. Having recently agreed to serve as "ethics coordinator" for the Johnson School, I worked with interested students and faculty colleagues to construct 5 Ps: A Framework for Ethical Decision-Making (see inset). This instrument consists of a series of questions that press users to identify their obligations to the sundry stakeholders and seek a defensible balance among them when they conflict. Students are introduced to 5 Ps at first-year orientation sessions on ethics so that, from the outset, they are being prepared to engage in rigorous moral analysis of business decisions – in the classroom and in corporate life. After orientation, students use the framework in multiple courses and in various disciplines, honing analytical skills that will help them resolve the ethical questions they are likely to face in their business careers.
Other initiatives to encourage the exploration of ethical issues by students and faculty are under way, and, as ethics coordinator, I am actively looking for still others. For example, we regularly invite notable business figures, such as WorldCom whistle-blower Cynthia Cooper, to speak on ethics-related topics. Patrick Kuhse – formerly a white-collar criminal, international fugitive, federal convict, and now a nationally acclaimed speaker on ethics – has become a fixture in our first-year orientation program. This past spring, we introduced a new elective course on how companies can combine profitability and a commitment to corporate responsibility. A student organization, the Ethics Action Group, works in assorted ways to promote attention to ethical values in the Johnson School community.
So, what is the school doing in ethics? Quite a bit – with much more to come.