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:
A very serious problem
A somewhat serious problem
An isolated problem
I believe that most executives in Corporate America are:
Law-abiding citizens, who don't place profits above morals
Law-abiding citizens, who sometimes place profits above morals
Would do just about anything for a dollar
I believe business schools should:
Teach ethics as a required core course
Offer ethics classes as electives, but not require them
Offer no specific ethics classes, but weave ethics into existing disciplines such as accounting, finance, or marketing
Not teach business ethics
I believe that if B-schools did a better job of teaching ethics there would be fewer corporate scandals:
I believe most MBA students:
Want to learn about ethics
Want to learn about ethics, but find it difficult to apply ethical standards in the real world
Don't want to learn about ethics if it means having to miss a practical class in marketing, finance, or some other discipline
Don't want to learn about ethics, as it's useless in their job hunt
If ethics is offered as a class in an MBA program, I think it should:
Focus largely on the philosophical underpinnings of ethics
Be rooted in practical discussions of actual business situations
If you're an MBA student, how would you rate your school's teaching of ethics?
I'm not in B-school
If you're an MBA graduate, how often do you face ethical issues for which B-school has helped you prepare?
Not very often
I'm not an MBA grad
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?
Not very useful
I'm not an MBA grad
Do you think B-schools should try to judge the ethical values of their applicants by using:
All of the above
None of the above
Do you agree or disagree that at present B-schools do a good job of grounding their graduates in ethical business practices?
I think ethical values are best taught:
By parents, at home
By religious clergy or instructors
In elementary or secondary school
A B-school student
A prospective B-school student
A B-school graduate