Business students are returning from work placements with far fewer scruples than they arrived with, according to research published yesterday.
The study showed that "reasonably high levels of moral awareness" went down markedly by the end of a year spent in industry.
The research, by Nottingham Business School, found that the so-called Enron generation students applied different moral standards to their personal and business lives. Previous research indicated that students felt they had to "sell their souls" to get on in business.
Dr Diannah Lowry, who ran the study, questioned nearly 300 students. They were asked to decide between employing two people with similar qualifications, one of whom had insider knowledge of a rival business.
She found that 56 per cent of pre-placement students correctly identified that the question raised serious ethical issues, such as whether hiring the candidate with insider knowledge would put the rival firm out of business. This compared with only 34 per cent of post-placement students who spotted the moral dilemma.
The post-placement students were the only ones to have studied business ethics in their final year of study, but Dr Lowry said by that time it was too late. She said business schools should introduce ethics courses earlier in training.
"In a world that is post-Enron, this is an extremely worrying situation," she said. "If they are going to do this for hiring, who's to say they won't do the same for other things such as accounting?
"Since part of Enron's downfall was apparently due to artificially inflated profits and dubious accounting, both of which have ethical implications, in the light of this research the potential of another situation like Enron occurring again is possible."
Dr Lowry said the reasons for the decline were not clear but said it appeared to be down the "pressures of organisational life". The students had spent time at a range of small to large companies.
She plans to compare the results of the British study with similar examinations of business students in the United States and Australia.
She said: "These are Thatcher's children. Ethics is not fashionable but what is, is getting ahead in business. While they are perfectly nice, they tend to think that in business that you need to be fairly ruthless."
A spokesman for the Confederation of British Industry said: "The idea that going into a real company is somehow corrupting or running a company successfully requires you to be less than ethical is a false one."Reuse content