Can Business Ethics Be Taught?

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There was a terrific article in The Christian Science Monitor recently by G. Jeffrey MacDonald titled ''Can Business Ethics Be Taught?''

MacDonald noted a significant increase in ethics programs at business schools in his article, as well as the following:
  • One in three programs requires coursework in ethics, sustainability, and corporate social responsibility.
  • The number of stand-alone ethics courses in M.B.A. curricula has increased by 500% since 1988.
  • Thirty-nine of the 50 schools have centers dedicated to ethics, corporate social responsibility, or sustainability.
While I agree that there needs to be a focus on ethics in business schools, I believe classroom training is not an indicator of behavioral change.



I believe a combination of formal classroom training must be accompanied by in-situ training when graduates enter the world of business. The organizations they work for must reinforce their classroom training with workplace training that shows how ethical thinking can be incorporated into their day-to-day functions. Yet few companies have found ways to do this successfully.

In fact, based on recent reports within the PR industry, academics and professionals are establishing stronger partnerships in response to the realization that the basic academic underpinnings of our craft need to be supported with more on-the-job training if we are to have young professionals who are better prepared to take on the rigors of a career in PR.

It’s no different from the ethical training of young practitioners. According to executive coach and psychologist Kevin Fleming (quoted in the article), “Managers can learn ethical behavior, but not from courses that teach what you should do. Instead, they need to embrace feedback from colleagues and advisors in order to understand the values inside you that would determine what you would do in a sticky situation.”

That’s why my colleague Dr. Carol Orsborn, co-author of Trust Inc., developed our Values Based Leadership Workshop for PR professionals to include role-playing scenarios based on common ethical dilemmas arising from actual workplace case studies.

These “live fire” case scenarios have the greatest impact during our training sessions. While many practitioners are intrigued by the overview of legal and compliance issues, they are left wondering how it applies to their day-to-day activities. This interactive portion of the training takes it one step further by giving participants real-world scenarios to explore with fellow professionals that have a lasting impact.

Many agencies offer rudimentary professional-development sessions on regulatory and compliance issues to their staffs, but few take it a step further by showcasing how individuals can apply this information during the course of a routine business day. This experiential gap is what, I believe, can make an ethics training program truly worthwhile and effective.

About the Author

Ann Higgins is president and CEO of Utopia Communications Inc., an ethically focused public relations agency based in Red Bank, NJ. A member of PRSA’s Counselors Academy’s executive committee, Ann is an endorsed trainer of Trust Inc.’s LEAP methodology for values-based leadership in the United States. For more on ethics in the PR industry, visit her blog at www.ethicaloptimist.com.
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