Ethics teaching asks the wrong questions

A few years ago, I suffered a crisis of faith. After working in the field of business ethics at Harvard Business School and later as a consultant on global MBA education, I began to wonder if it was even ethical to try to teach the subject.

I laboured to persuade faculty to raise the topic, but then, the conversation typically went as follows: some students argued we should all “do the right thing”. These individuals typically broke into two groups: those who were saying what they thought was expected and those who really wanted to believe they could be ethical business people.

And then there was another group who felt the class was an exercise in political correctness. What did it have to do with learning how to be successful? They were cynical and sometimes slightly resentful; what right did a business school have to be preaching at them?

Given this particular recipe, coupled with faculty who understandably did not want to argue that students behave in a naively self-destructive fashion, the ethics discussion was less than empowering.

Classes were typically based on thorny ethical dilemmas: the ones we termed “right versus right” discussions, although they often amounted to more of a search for the lesser evil. Students who argued for “ethical” positions would often appear to be less sophisticated; the way to demonstrate you were worldly wise was to argue that the competitive marketplace did not allow for self-serving morality, or even more cleverly, that it was wrong to behave in such a selfish way, putting one’s own conscience over the good of the enterprise and shareholders.

It seemed that despite faculty’s good intentions, these conversations were something of a charade and I questioned the whole endeavour.

But then I realised that the MBA graduates pictured in handcuffs were typically those who had been engaged in more clear-cut offences; rather than right versus right scenarios, their offences were not only unethical but illegal. And I wondered if our focus on distinguishing right from wrong was actually creating a kind of “school for scandal”. Students were practising the very rationalisations that led them to question whether values-driven behaviour was even possible or right in the first place. It was this kind of thinking that later led some of their number into such deep litigious waters.

Were we asking the wrong questions? Shouldn’t we invite students to think about how to do what was ethical and legal, rather than whether it was possible (or profitable) to do so? What if we looked at what had worked in the past for those individuals who had found ways to voice their values in the workplace? And what if we asked students to develop action plans and “scripts” for what they would say and do when they encountered the very predictable pressures to behave unethically? We could then tell them to practice these scripts with each other – not as adversarial role play but as peer coaching exercises. Students would prove their sophistication with the most feasible arguments and methods to do the seemingly impossible, that is behave in accordance with their highest values in the workplace.

Just think what might have happened at BP if individuals there not only knew what the right thing to do was (we know there was more than one engineer who tried to speak up about safety violations), but also knew how to do so effectively.

This idea is not rocket science. It amounts to educators asking students and business leaders asking employees to bring their insights, their critical thinking and innovative ideas to the task of getting the right thing done.

We know that the heroes of business history comprise individuals who made “do-able” what previously seemed impossible. Let’s invite students to apply that same passion and entrepreneurial spirit to building a values-driven economy.

Mary C. Gentile, Ph.D. is the author of Giving Voice to Values: How to Speak Your Mind When You Know What’s Right (Yale University Press) and Director of the “Giving Voice to Values” curriculum and Senior Research Scholar at Babson College.

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