Lately, we have been bombarded with examples of bad corporate behaviour from banks to airlines to fake news to social media company’s attempts to make social media addictive to political figures breaking promises and their questionable behaviour. It all suggests that we are entering into an era of moral and ethical decline.
But there is hope.
Over the last 15 years from my vantage point in European and North American universities, I have witnessed how topics introduced into universities and colleges tend to become mainstream organizational thinking as students enter the workforce, taking those ideas with them. Observe how supply chain management, entrepreneurship and project management are mainstream now after being introduced into higher education courses some 10-15 years ago. Ethics was also introduced as learning thread, into many business courses, around the same time.
I regularly converse with undergraduate and MBA students from almost every industry in North America and Europe and see the following, admittedly not a scientific study but based on interactions with approximately 10,000 students over 15 years on two continents in a dozen universities.
First year undergraduate students tend to be tolerant of cheaters and unethical behaviour, they see it, might not like it, but won’t speak out about it. By the time 4th year rolls around, I tend to see students’ interest in cheating decrease, perhaps it’s because cheaters have generally failed out of the programs as cheating will only carry them so far in the academic system or perhaps it’s because with the ethical threads in business courses students have learned to be more active against unethical behaviour. By the MBA level, students have spent 10-5 years in a career and know what unethical behavior costs. They are more likely to adhere to concepts such as integrity, they are more eager to discuss ethics, have been involved in a strongly ethical or unethical environment and formed strong opinions that led them to take action.
So on one hand we see unethical behaviour enacted by some current leaders in organizations while on the other I see this wave of ethically aware individuals raising up the organizational ladder. My observations are limited to the North American and European universities that I have been associated with, however, it gives cause for hope that there is a prevailing counter movement against unethical behaviour and that the world is getting better.
Although ethics education needs to go the next step, it’s no longer enough to talk about ethics in a course or read ethics case studies. Students, employees and organizational leaders need to practice it, to support each other in their practice and by doing so gain strength for sticking to the correct ethical decision. If we have practice it and see others are of similar mind we gain strength. One way is through role play or simulations such as what we are doing with Ethics simulation another is to ingrain support for whistleblowers (no whistleblower should stand alone), and a third way is to celebrate ethical decisions. So join the counter movement, next time someone does the right thing, say thank you.