Cathy Arnst

A judicial board has determined that 34 first-year business graduate students at Duke University's highly ranked Fuqua School of Business cheated on a take-home final exam. An aberration? Apparently not, according to a survey released last year by researchers at Rutgers University. The researchers surveyed 5,331 students at 32 graduate schools in the U.S. and Canada between 2002 and 2004. They found that 56% of graduate business students admitted to cheating one or more times in the past academic year, compared to 47% of nonbusiness students.

Even more disturbing, according to a BW story on the study, is that none of the researchers were surprised by those results:

Why the moral lapses among aspiring business leaders? No one knows for sure, but those who gathered the results are willing to speculate. For starters, there's probably something different about the kind of people who are attracted to business in the first place. Linda Treviño, Cook Fellow of Business Ethics at the Smeal College of Business at Penn State University and one of the researchers who worked on the study, says the most likely reason is that business students are more bottom-line driven, which could drive their willingness to cheat.

The reason most business students give for cheating is the perception that their peers are doing it and therefore they must follow suit.

It's not just business students who cheat, but it is unnerving, given that most business schools in the post-Enron age have instituted ethics courses. Although it may be too late to teach anyone ethics if they haven't had those lessons instilled in them by the time they reach biz school.

Parents, of course, are the primary ethics teachers in most childrens' lives. So, what are we doing wrong? Perhaps we need to think about our own behavior on the job and in the community--just how ethical are we? And how much pressure are we putting on our children to get good grades, get into the right college, win the big game, etc., even if it means a little corner cutting along the way?

Along those lines, David Maister, a management consultant, had this to say about the Rutgers study on his blog last fall:

I read this at the same time that that the “20-something” daughter of some good friends was telling us about her new job as a personal assistant in the world of public relations. She pointed out, with great discomfort, that it was not unusual for her boss to say “I worked on the XYZ account for 4 hours but bill them for 20.” There’s even a word for this form of lying in PR firms, accounting firms, consulting firms and law firms: “value billing.”

We have crossed over into dangerous territory. When there is the normal expectation that most other people will cheat (given the opportunity) things WILL rapidly descend into the expectation that everyone will. We then have a distrustful, society based on the expectation of corruption – and everyone becomes super-defensive.

I won’t say I have never, ever sinned, especially when I was young and stupid. But what kept me on the true path was the overwhelming sense of guilt and the consequent vow that I would never lapse again. It is one thing to succumb to temptation. It is another to give up one’s very belief in principles and pass that cynicism and skepticism on to those around us and to those who report to us. What happens if, in school and in the first job, we raise a generation of people who think lying, cheating and stealing are the ways you get ahead

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