Ditch the Ethics Course

Last Updated Oct 2, 2008 4:10 PM EDT

Business schools all run ethics courses nowadays. Students like them because they are an easier way of gaining a course credit than struggling with the mysteries of Black-Scholes option pricing model, and just as useless.

The essence of ethics courses is to urge aspiring managers to act with honesty and integrity, or at least with enough honesty and integrity to avoid a call from the District Attorney's office. This misses the point entirely. Honesty and integrity have nothing to do with ethics, they are far more important than that.

The real case for honesty and integrity was put to me by an investment banker as he leaned over his fake antique desk. "If my team does not trust me, the team will walk across the street and I will have no team. If my clients do not trust me, I will have no clients. An investment banker with no team and no clients is no use". A cynic would argue that an investment banker with a team and clients is also no use, but that is another matter.

Managers need courage to be honest with their team and their clients. The easy way out is to dodge and duck uncomfortable truths. But when the bad news eventually leaks out, trust leaks away at the same time. Building trust requires real honesty.

Managerial honesty is different from political honesty. An honest politician is one who has not actually been convicted and had every appeal turned down. That is weak-form honesty. Strong-form honesty requires confronting the truth positively, actively and early. You may not win friends, but you will win respect this way.

Many managers avoid dealing with problems among their team until the year-end review. This may make for a friendly and comfortable relationship in the short term. But when the annual review comes round, trust and respect will be shattered.

Hopefully, managers can be honest and ethical. But teaching ethics course is not the way to honesty. When managers believe that honesty is essential to trust, respect and career survival, then they are likely to act honestly.

What do you think -- what does an ethics course teach you?

(Photo by Roland,CC2.0)

  • Jo Owen

    Jo Owen practises what he preaches as a leader. He has worked with over 100 of the best, and a couple of the worst, organisations in the world, has built a business in Japan; started a bank (now HBOS business banking); was a partner at Accenture and brand manager at P&G. He is a serial entrepreneur whose start-ups include top 10 graduate recruiter Teach First and Start Up, which has helped over 250 ex-offenders start their own businesses. He has and has spent seven years researching leadership, strategy and organisation in tribal societies. His books include "Tribal Business School", "How to Lead and How to Manage." He is in demand as a speaker and coach on leadership and change. His websites include Tribal Business School and Leadership Partnership