DePaul University professor Laura Hartman begins her business ethics class at DePaul University by asking students to define what they think is right and wrong. Then she asks them to go on to apply those values to scenarios that they are going to face in the world of business.
The question of whether or not ethics can be taught is an old one. Recent occurrences in business have caused a resurgence in corporate training classes and academic courses devoted to the subject.
However, even among experts in the field, doubts exist as to whether or not ethics can be taught. Some believe that ethics can't be taught, but that employees and students can be given ideas about how to make critical decisions. Others agree with Socrates, who concluded 2,500 years ago that people can be taught to do the right thing. Ethics courses may not change people's behavior in the long run, but they do lay out expectations.
For example, troops in Iraq undergo a mandatory ethics refresher. The intention of the course is to reinforce what the troops learned before coming to Iraq and to demonstrate that the rules they knew in the States can still apply, even under extreme conditions. Practice handling unfamiliar situations ahead of time allows soldiers to practice what they would do in unfamiliar situations, and helps them to prepare for handling their emotions in extremely stressful situations.
Ethics training can be real, or just for show. Enron, in its heyday, was considered enlightened about ethical principles. However, with the company's collapse, the message is clear: ethics begin at the top of a company. For a culture to be ethical, ethics must be exercised consistently at the top.
All business schools are trying to improve their ethics education. Most business schools now include mandatory ethics instruction in their programs. In Lisa Hartman's class at DePaul, students explore their power to impact the world around them and realize that they are responsible not only for their actions but for choices not to act as well.