Business Schools

MBAs Need More Than Ethics 101


Readers of BusinessWeek Online think the past year's business scandals have dealt a major blow to trust in Corporate America. And they think graduate business schools, which train people to become top execs, deserve low marks for their efforts to improve the ethical standards of their graduates. Those are the key findings of our Dec. 3 Reader Survey on this topic, "Business Ethics and B-School."

Of the more than 2,700 readers who responded, some 94% think the misdeeds that have come to light at companies such as Enron (ENRNQ), WorldCom (WCOEQ), and Citigroup (C) are a very serious or somewhat serious problem. And they don't see many angels in the executive suite. About 63% believe that although most execs are law-abiding citizens, they sometimes put profits above morals. An additional 28% agree with the statement that corporate execs "would do just about anything for a dollar."

One way to address this issue, respondents agreed, would be to teach ethics in B-school: About 64% think that ethics should be a required, stand-alone course for MBA students, while 27% think it shouldn't be taught separately, but rather should be woven into existing coursework for disciplines such as accounting, finance, and marketing. A scant 2.25% of those who replied said MBAs shouldn't receive ethics training.

NOT VERY USEFUL. However B-schools approach the teaching of ethics, most respondents think they should do a better job. Only 11% think that B-schools adequately ground MBAs in ethical business practices, vs. 53% who don't and 36% who aren't sure.

Coincidentally or not, almost half of the MBA graduates who responded to the survey have found the ethical training they received in B-school not very useful in dealing with ethical issues at work. About 30% of graduates said they only occasionally face ethical issues for which B-school helped them prepare. Respondents who are currently in B-school appear to be a little more charitable, with 78% giving their schools at least a "C" for their ethics instruction.

So what's to be done? Overwhelmingly, our readers think the teaching of ethics should be rooted in practical discussions of actual business situations: 46% thought that alone would be sufficient, while 47% advocate combining practical discussions with instruction on the philosophical underpinnings of ethics.

What's more, B-schools should have a better idea of what students stand for before they're admitted, according to our readers: Some 75% think B-schools should use some combination of interviews, background checks, and essay questions to determine the ethics of applicants before accepting them.

SHORT SHRIFT? Readers are split on the issue of how receptive students might be to increased ethics training. About 43% believe that MBAs are willing to learn about business ethics and simply find it hard to apply those lessons once they're in the real world. An additional 40%, though, think students will give ethics classes short shrift if they come at the expense of taking classes that are more likely to wow a corporate recruiter -- or if ethics instruction will be a useless credential during their job hunt.

This may explain the ambivalence among readers over the question of whether fewer corporate scandals would be likely if B-schools did a better job of teaching ethics. Some 36% of those who replied to the survey said yes, but 34% said no, and 29% aren't sure.

Incidentally, the vast majority of readers think ethics are better taught someplace other than B-school, with 75% saying the best values are taught at home by parents, while 8% chose elementary or secondary school, and only 4% chose B-school.

Here are the detailed results of the survey which, as always, isn't

scientific, since anyone who wished to could participate:

When it comes to trust in Corporate America, I consider the malfeasance that has come to light in the past year:

Option

Total

%

A very serious problem

2046

75.58 %

A somewhat serious problem

507

18.73 %

An isolated problem

104

3.84 %

A nonissue

27

1.00 %

Not sure

23

0.85 %

I believe that most executives in Corporate America are:

Option

Total

%

Law-abiding citizens, who don't place profits above morals

175

6.45 %

Law-abiding citizens, who sometimes place profits above morals

1708

62.91 %

Would do just about anything for a dollar

772

28.43 %

Not sure

60

2.21 %

I believe business schools should:

Option

Total

%

Teach ethics as a required core course

1743

64.25 %

Offer ethics classes as electives, but not require them

156

5.75 %

Offer no specific ethics classes, but weave ethics into existing disciplines such as accounting, finance, or marketing

721

26.58 %

Not teach business ethics

61

2.25 %

Not sure

32

1.18 %

I believe that if B-schools did a better job of teaching ethics there would be fewer corporate scandals:

Option

Total

%

Yes

983

36.33 %

No

934

34.52 %

Not sure

789

29.16 %

I believe most MBA students:

Option

Total

%

Want to learn about ethics

310

11.46 %

Want to learn about ethics, but find it difficult to apply ethical standards in the real world

1171

43.29 %

Don't want to learn about ethics if it means having to miss a practical class in marketing, finance, or some other discipline

716

26.47 %

Don't want to learn about ethics, as it's useless in their job hunt

388

14.34 %

Not sure

120

4.44 %

If ethics is offered as a class in an MBA program, I think it should:

Option

Total

%

Focus largely on the philosophical underpinnings of ethics

117

4.33 %

Be rooted in practical discussions of actual business situations

1253

46.39 %

Both

1277

47.28 %

Neither

54

2.00 %

If you're an MBA student, how would you rate your school's teaching of ethics?

Option

Total

%

A

175

6.74 %

B

251

9.66 %

C

194

7.47 %

D

83

3.19 %

F

90

3.46 %

I'm not in B-school

1805

69.48 %

If you're an MBA graduate, how often do you face ethical issues for which B-school has helped you prepare?

Option

Total

%

Very often

130

5.10 %

Occasionally

323

12.66 %

Not very often

255

10.00 %

Never

123

4.82 %

I'm not an MBA grad

1720

67.42 %

If you're an MBA graduate, how useful has the ethical training you received in B-school been in helping you deal with ethical issues at work?

Option

Total

%

Very useful

113

4.44 %

Somewhat useful

266

10.44 %

Not very useful

382

15.00 %

Don't know

56

2.20 %

I'm not an MBA grad

1730

67.92 %

Do you think B-schools should try to judge the ethical values of their applicants by using:

Option

Total

%

Background checks

128

4.77 %

Essay questions

248

9.24 %

Interviews

509

18.96 %

All of the above

1124

41.86 %

None of the above

676

25.18 %

Do you agree or disagree that at present B-schools do a good job of grounding their graduates in ethical business practices?

Option

Total

%

Agree

305

11.32 %

Disagree

1416

52.54 %

Don't know

974

36.14 %

I think ethical values are best taught:

Option

Total

%

By parents, at home

2011

74.59 %

By religious clergy or instructors

77

2.86 %

In elementary or secondary school

215

7.97 %

In B-school

109

4.04 %

At work

123

4.56 %

Not sure

161

5.97 %

I am:

Option

Total

%

A B-school student

483

17.97 %

A prospective B-school student

581

21.61 %

A B-school graduate

627

23.33 %

Other

997

37.09 %


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