Do ethics have any business in the workplace?

By Lucy Hodges
Sunday 23 October 2011 01:54

Are students of business ready for lessons in ethics or do they think they are a waste of space? This was an issue dividing the deans and directors who attended the Association of MBAs' (Amba) conference in Berlin last week. Some speakers thought that students were thoroughly sceptical about companies that embraced business ethics; others detected an increasing consciousness of business ethics in the student population.

Nina Seppala, a lecturer at the London Business School (LBS), astonished the audience with her story about Masters students at LBS. She told them how Ikea was trying to change the attitudes of its staff towards child labour and invited the CEO of Ikea along to explain. "The CEO was very clear about it," she said. "He told managers that they had to tackle the problem of child labour by providing education for the children. But the students said they didn't believe that the CEO was telling the truth. They thought Ikea had some other motive for wanting to do something about child labour."

Speaking at the conference, grandly titled Responsible Management for a World in Transition, Dr Seppala, who also teaches at University College London, says that she was surprised at the students' sceptical reaction because she thought the younger generation was more concerned about such issues than their parents' generation. This scepticism would make it difficult for business schools which wanted to make business ethics compulsory. The problem is that students believe that businessmen are motivated by materialism and personal gain, not by idealism. Moreover, the students find the subject of ethics vague and they are themselves young and inexperienced when it comes to judging people and their motivation.

Most MBA graduates would leave a company whose values did not match their own rather than speak up, she said, rather than try to change the company from within.

Last week's conference, which covered climate change, emerging markets, geopolitical shifts, sustainability and changing demographics, looked at what business schools should be doing to create the business leaders of the future. Dr Seppala believes business ethics teachers are there to make students think about the kind of people they want to be. She thinks teaching must be made personal by relating it to issues that will arise in almost any workplace. And it should also be made concrete, by giving students real-life dilemmas to judge.

Lindsey Nefesh-Clarke, last year's Independent/Amba student of the year, who also spoke in Berlin, thinks that business schools can play a decisive role in helping companies move from seeing corporate social responsibility as a marketing gesture to embedding it at all levels. At present, many business people see corporate social responsibility and ethics as "touchy-feely" and "soft", says Nefesh-Clarke, who took her MBA at ESCP Europe in Paris. "It's not seen as a rigorous part of business," she says. "We have to change that."

She advocates that business schools take the lead in incorporating corporate social responsibility fully into their curricula. In her view, it is important that companies seek not only to make a profit but also to have a positive impact on the environment and society.

Another speaker, Matthew Gitsham, the director of the Ashridge Centre for Business and Sustainability, believes students' attitudes are changing. Five years ago, when Ashridge began to teach its two-week compulsory module on sustainable business to MBA students, it met with some scepticism. But that has given way to complete acceptance. "All conversation now is about how you do something about the problems," Gitsham says. "Nobody questions whether this is an important agenda for business. There's been a real shift. The subject gets people energised and enthused."

Gitsham did say, however, that there is a difference between students' reaction to thinking about global problems and thinking about ethics. "The latter can be a bit of a turn-off," he says. "It feels disconnected from what they are learning."

Another business school that is trying to update its offerings is Grenoble in France. It has a new research centre and has set up a course in microeconomics for competitiveness, which is all about creating prosperity from the bottom up. Based on Harvard's case-study approach, it looks at what has happened on the ground in places such as Singapore and Estonia.

Durham Business School says it is incorporating sustainability into everything it does. It is putting up a new building which will be more environmentally friendly than anything it has built before and it is introducing more sustainability into the curriculum. Durham also has an energy institute which is looking at carbon technology and carbon capture.

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