“All the teaching of social responsibility and ethics in the U.S. and the rest of the developed world’s business schools has not prevented corporate greed and hubris from occurring and recurring.”
I have been reading a very interesting article by my colleague, Dr Khosro Jahdi*. Titled Education and Corporate Social Responsibility: the Bradford College Experience**, it looks at the how, why, what and ‘so what?’ of teaching ethics as part of business and marketing courses in higher education.
That question – has teaching ethics failed? – made me pause. How can we tell how successful business schools are at instilling ethics?
Are we able to compare the greed and corruption shown by business leaders who went to schools where ethics was taught as an explicit part of the curriculum, with those who did not?
Do we have all the facts? The high profile cases of corruption that we see are so outstanding that probably we do not give due weight to the thousands or millions of businesses that go about their business legally.
When we look for inspiring examples of corporate social responsibility, we see perhaps the most famous ones. But there must be many more modest enterprises where integrity and social commitment are shown, but no trumpets are blown.
Then again, we only know of the fraud and corruption that comes to light. How many businesses get away with cooking the books, or polluting the environment, exploiting their workforce or selling shoddy goods?
These are variants of survivor bias, ‘the logical error of concentrating on the people or things that “survived” some process and inadvertently overlooking those that didn’t because of their lack of visibility’. The big, negative events appear to dominate the corporate landscape, and we don’t know the true balance of corruption and virtue in business (in this instance, the focus on corruption might more accurately be termed ‘failure’ bias!).
Would perhaps the amount of corporate greed and hubris have been higher had ethics not been taught? It is a world of shifting mirrors – the most wealthy companies can potentially do considerable good. They can also spend more money telling you about it – or perhaps they are making themselves appear more socially committed than they are in reality, or even hiding the unacceptable side of capitalism. I suspect that, sadly, scrutiny and sanctions in the real world are weak and insufficient, and that corporate greed may best be countered through the law.
In his search for answers, Khosro turns to his students and asks them what they think, and he draws on his own experience of more than 25 years teaching ethics. Fortunately, ethics is alive and well at Bradford College, and our students show a real urge to think about the issues, to the point that the Bradford Business School now runs a popular Masters module in International CSR and several of the academic staff have a strong interest in the area. While some of the analysts that Khosro quotes are concerned for the future of business ethics, his students seem to think that more and more people will expect companies to be ethical, and that students will want to learn about this.
I think I’m with the students on this one: it’s vital that all of us, and especially young people about to embark on their working lives, have the chance to learn about and reflect on business ethics. Where else and where better to do this than while you are at College?
** The photo is of Khosro – see also page 11 of our latest research bulletin.