Woo weighs in on ethics


In the rapidly evolving global business environment, business ethics is suddenly taking on new importance. The number of worldwide companies with ethics officers has grown from 200 six years ago to more than 500 in 1998. And some have gone so far as to provide phone hot lines for employees and run extensive training sessions to avoid lawsuits, bad press, and scandal.p. Yet despite the growth in business ethics awareness, business schools — the primary providers of management talent to industry — seem to be lagging behind. True, nearly all of the B-schools in Business Week’s top 50 offer some ethics electives, or ethics instruction woven into their curriculums. But few have required courses on ethics. Many schools tout their ethics programs during orientation. But what lasting effect does three hours of role playing really have on a typical future business leader?p. One business school striving to lead in ethics is Notre Dame’s: The school has offered ethics courses since the 1960s, and it opened a business ethics center in 1978. Business Week Online Reporter Nadav Enbar spoke recently with Notre Dame’s B-school dean, Carolyn Woo, on the subject of teaching ethics in business schools. Here’s an edited transcript of their conversation:p. *Q: Carolyn, I’d like to start broadly and ask you first whether ethics can be taught?

  • A: I think it can, and to put it more accurately I think students’ ability to do ethical analysis can be taught. We’re teaching them two things. One is to have a heightened sensitivity to the ethical dimensions of issues. The second is the ability to analyze ethical tradeoffs. I think formal education can enhance ethical analysis.p. *Q: Can it turn rotten apples into angels, so to speak?
  • A: I would not go so far as to say that — and I have not run into a lot of rotten apples. I think what it does is take basic apples and help them become good apples — people who are aware of ethical issues whereas before they may be a bit naive about those issues.p. *Q: I know that Notre Dame is notable for the substantial ethics content in its curriculum. But volume doesn’t necessarily mean results.
  • A: Correct.p. *Q: What do you feel is the best way to impart ethical standards to your students?
  • A: We have a lot of faculty members in this area (roughly 15 coming from many different disciplines, and two that only teach ethics), and also the Notre Dame Center for Ethics and Religious Values in Business. But you’re absolutely right. Just having a lot of activities does not mean that we’re doing it the best way possible. In fact, we are asking ourselves that question and are starting a planning exercise. The first thing we’ve done is identify certain objectives — things an ethics curriculum is supposed to deliver.p. – The first one is what we call “moral imagination.” This is the whole area of becoming sensitive to ethical dimensions.
    The second is what we call “prioritization” - to have a sense of what is very important and what is less important.
    -The third objective is “ethical analysis:” When confronted with these dilemmas and gray issues, how do you analyze them to come up with a decision.
    -Fourth is “applications to business problems.” So that it’s not just theory, but what we see in the day-to-day problems associated with finance, with marketing and accounting, in management, human resources.
    -The fifth area is to understand how cultural differences affect the way we look at ethical issues.
    -And then the sixth one is personal values and integrity.
    p. We’re looking at what type of curriculum activities we have for each of those: Where we are strong and perhaps redundant, where we may be missing something. It doesn’t make sense to just have a lot of lectures on these things.p. *Q: So it should be a pervasive agenda.
  • A: I would just say comprehensive along at least three or four dimensions. The first dimension is the six objectives. I don’t think we could just do two and ignore the other four.p. The second way that it should be comprehensive is that they should cut into all of our business disciplines, be interwoven… It needs to be integrated with the way we teach.p. The third way that we want it to be comprehensive is that it should be both inside and outside of the classroom.p. And fourth, [it should include] our undergraduate program. We’re designing a curriculum that covers the sophomore, junior, and senior years in the undergraduate program.p. *Q: In your opinion, is the emphasis on ethics by business schools increasing or decreasing?
  • A: It’s definitely increasing. There have been major investments over the past 10 years. A few major schools, like Harvard, started about 15 years ago. Wharton’s investment in its ethics center started about 10 years ago; the University of Virginia (Darden) about 10 or 15 years ago. It is not uncommon now to talk to any of the top 20, 25, and even the top 50 schools, and find that they have a person dedicated to teaching business ethics.p. *Q: But would that necessarily mean the subject is being approached in a way that teaches students ethics?
  • A: I would say it’s a first step. It clearly is not the last step.p. *Q: For example, ethics is now a standard part of orientation at many business schools. But what does that really amount to? Really, it’s just a two-hour sitdown discussion and role playing, correct?
  • A: Correct. And sometimes you may actually have one required course in ethics. Listen, I’m a pragmatist: A first step is better than no step — it’s the beginning. But in order to have a type of comprehensiveness, which means delivering multiple courses with multiple objectives, and a curriculum which is deep and wide enough to cover multiple years takes a bit of time to develop. There’s a bit of investment in developing that. So I would say, Nadav, you’re right. Are business schools increasing their interest in ethics? Yes they are. Are the activities to the point where we would consider it enough? I think we’re just taking the first step.p. *Q: Why have many B-schools in the last decade or so, particularly in the last five years, been moving to beef up their ethics curricula?
  • A: Because if you look at any surveys of leadership, they all will ask what the most important attributes of a leader are. And almost 75% to 85% of the respondents will cite integrity as number one. The number two attribute tends to be vision, which is about 10 percentage points lower. But all of the leadership polls identify integrity as the major issue.p. We also look at polls of employers who recruit MBAs at the entry levels. And when you ask them what the important attributes of a leader are, they also cite integrity as a very important issue. So Corporate America itself has increased its own understanding of the importance of ethics. The increase in ethics content is a combination of business schools being responsive to their corporate recruiters, and also recognizing that they’re preparing future leaders.p. But I think business schools also have an honest appreciation for how complex the issues we’re dealing with are, and that we don’t have a blueprint to guide us. For example, when you buy an insurance policy, you face the possibility of a genetic test that gives a profile of some of the diseases and health problems you might be disposed to. The question is how do you want to use that information in ethics coursework. There are so many gray areas … affirmative action is another. It deals with employees sometimes asking themselves, “am I given inappropriate exposure because of my race and gender?” And when you go into various countries that have different practices than the U.S.‘s, when is it okay to bend the rules and be considered flexible? When have you stepped over the line?p. *Q: It seems like today’s increasingly complex marketplace, propelled by the technology sector where change is a daily occurrence, places a higher demand on having a strong ethical foundation.
  • A: Right. And I would say another driver of that complexity is a global diversity in cultures and their differing values.p. *Q: Given today’s global marketplace and much more fast-paced world, do you feel that incoming students demonstrate a higher ethical standard than their predecessors?
  • A: I would not say that our students coming in these days have higher standards than those who came before.p. *Q: Would you say they have lower standards?
  • A: No, I wouldn’t say that either. I think what they face is a lot more seduction and opportunities. They’re coming into a world that is so much more affluent than what their parents [entered]; they have so many more opportunities. And right now, too, we see students facing many job offers. The issues that today’s MBAs face really are less black and white than [in the past].p. The challenge is much more pronounced for them, not because they have lower standards, but I think because the context and the nature of the problems are much more challenging in terms of the ethical dimension.p. *Q: I’m looking at a survey here released by the Academy of Management that evaluates the ethical values embraced by many of the deans at about 300 business schools. And the results that they found were —
  • A: Discouraging.p. *Q: Indeed. Do business school deans need to evaluate their own character to be able to send the right message to their charges?
  • A: I think that’s a very good question. I think each one of us has to constantly ask ourselves what our decisions tell us about who we are. Do we like what they say about us? Business school deans, in some ways, face exactly the same temptations as their students. It’s a highly competitive market, there are a lot of opportunities, but there’s also a lot at stake if you don’t win. So I don’t think we should remove deans [from the ethical scrutiny placed on executives].p. Everything depends on the leadership at the top. If we really want ethics to become integrated in the curriculum, I think the leadership, as exemplified by deans, becomes a very important issue. I think the deans will imprint the programs that they lead.p. *Q: What does it mean when a study comes out showing that deans should probably be students in the very ethics programming they’ve helped to create?
  • A: That deans are humans. We are all flawed in some way. There are many temptations. And each decision that we make is sort of a mirror of ourselves. But the good thing about mirrors is that once you see certain things, you begin to reflect and become sensitive to issues. It gives you a chance to have greater imagination so that the next time, when you are faced with a similar set of pressures, you might approach it differently. I think that’s what we’re engaging our students to do. But clearly it would not work well if we don’t apply our best set of things to ourselves.p. *Q: Looking to the future, where do you see the ethics agenda going in the business school arena?
  • A: I think it will grow and become more integrated [in the curriculum]. We already have the beginnings, we have some ethical discussions happening in the classroom. I think going forward, we will move beyond just having one required course, or having just something in orientation. The reason I say that is because companies are investing more and more in their ethics as part of a protocol. Some companies are actually developing an ethical culture. I think we now have about 200 companies or so, which have an ethics officer and an ethics office. Now, I’m not naive. I’m not saying that all of these ethics offices and officers are equally effective and are charged with equal power to enforce issues that may arise. But having an officer in place is a step indicating that business is taking ethics very seriously.p. All the different stake holders who can bring legal challenges to the conduct of companies have essentially increased the stakes for firms. It is becoming a necessity for companies to impart to their employees what appropriate behavior is. I think all of this, again, translates into the fact that ethics is here to stay in corporations and in life. It’s only a matter of time before it gets reflected more prominently in business courses.p. So that’s why I see the business curriculum — where we are today — as only the starting point … because companies are really moving forward in terms of creating new ethics positions, officers, and systems. At Notre Dame we get approached, quite a number of times by clients who want to do corporate-wide ethics training for their employees.p. *Q: Dean Carolyn Woo, I thank you very much.
  • A: Thank you very much Nadav.

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