How can teaching ethics improve business?

Changing moral values in college students can pose challenges for teaching business ethics. In her second article for the IES Coalition, Dr. Barbara A. Ritter Dean, Wall College of Business, Coastal Carolina University, asks how we can better teach ethics in the business school curriculum

Scholars and practitioners of business education have long called for a change in the academic curriculum to better produce more ethical business people in the workplace.

It has been known (and consistently rediscovered), however, that changing moral values in college students is difficult at best, impossible at worst (1). Yet, a pressing need remains to show that business education has a positive impact on the world of commerce and that the business world has a positive impact on society.

Ethical decision making
The solution may lie in training students to consider ethics in decision making as part of a rational process that is the demonstrable social norm in any given industry. As social norms are types of behavior deemed acceptable by a group (2), exerting pressure to act according to those norms has been shown to be very effective at changing all types of unacceptable conduct (from alcohol and tobacco use to violence and prejudice).

If students are trained that the standard in a given industry (such as international real estate) is to regard ethics as an essential part of decision making, there will be considerable social pressure on these future business people to do just that.

Different ethical values
The fact that different ethical values seem to exist within business disciplines supports the thesis that this effect is already occurring implicitly throughout the education process.

In some studies, for example, Finance majors test as less ethical than other majors (3), implying different social norm exposure in the business curriculum for that major. Hence, with a conscious focus in the curriculum on ethical principles within industry, the opposite effect should also be possible (that is, a positive inclination towards ethical decision making).

It is the business world that can assist the academic world by defining and endorsing ethical social norms. A standardized set of ethical principles that are generally accepted in industry would allow communication of those principles through the curriculum so as to create the expectation of corresponding professional behavior.

The universal endorsement of such standards will not only benefit any given industry directly by encouraging ethical behavior, but will also assist business schools in educating better qualified executives.

1. Ritter, B. A. (2006). Can business ethics be trained? A study of the ethical decision-making process in business students. Journal of Business Ethics,68(2), 153-164.
2. Ajzen, I., & Fishbein, M. (1972). Attitudes and normative beliefs as factors influencing behavioral intentions. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 21(1), 1-9.

3. O’Leary, C., & Hannah, F. M. (2008). Are students from different business majors predisposed to different ethical sensitivities?. Corporate Ownership and Control, 6(1), 254-263.