MBAs Need More Than Ethics 101

BW Online's recent Reader Survey finds overwhelming support for improved values-oriented training in business schools

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.


  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.


  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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