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Can You Teach Ethics to MBAs?

In the spring of 2009, when Bernie Madoff's massive scam still
felt raw and shocking, a few members of Harvard B-School's graduating
class decided to take a stand. They would sign a kind of Hippocratic oath for
MBAs
, promising, among other things, to "act with utmost integrity
and pursue my work in an ethical manner." By graduation in June, slightly under half of their 886 classmates had joined them. To put the glass-half-empty
spin on it, that means most of the students at Harvard B-school didn't even grasp the basics in their ethics classes.

On the other hand, maybe it's not that MBAs can't
learn ethics. Maybe it's just that B-schools are very bad at teaching
it.

Test Yourself: Would You Act Unethically on the Job?

MBA ethics classes tend to focus on training students to
recognize what's right and wrong. But Mary Gentile, a Babson College
scholar with a specialty in ethics and diversity curricula, says the standard
approach fails to address the real problem. In most real-life business
situations, Gentile says, you already know what's right. The hard
part is figuring out how to act on that knowledge without jeopardizing your
career. Often, it's just easier to justify bending the rules.

In 2005, Gentile together with the Aspen Institute and the Yale School
of Management began a project that would apply her research to a real
curriculum. The courses she developed teach students to anticipate how they or
their colleagues might justify unethical behavior, and practice reacting to
different scenarios. "It is very [helpful] to be able to pre-script
the responses you would make to frequently heard arguments," says
Gentile. Since August 2008, the number of business schools pilot-testing the
program jumped from just over 30 to more than 80, including MIT and INSEAD, a
global college with campuses near Paris and in Singapore, and research centers
or offices in Abu Dhabi, the United States and Israel.

"A lot of people started this semester talking about
how the easiest way to deal with an ethical situation was to avoid it,"
says Jerry Gowen, an MBA student at Washington State University. "You
can't do that all of the time. Using this approach, you have a little
more ammunition" to deal with an ethically questionable situation at
work.

Gentile's method doesn't attempt to show
you how to negotiate every such situation. Instead, the curriculum emphasizes
practice: working through scenarios, brainstorming rationalizations for
unethical behavior, and formulating counterarguments. "We're
not saying that this is easy or that it will always work," says Gentile. "But
if we spend more time practicing, it will come more naturally."

Test Yourself: Would You Act Unethically on the Job?

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