While it might appear an over-used cliché to highlight that we live in
testing times, with regard to business ethics this is particularly
true. The world needs business leaders who are prepared to engage with
these challenges. This is why The University of Western Australia
Business School is taking a new approach to the teaching of business
This approach is all about the "how" of ethics: how can I express my values here, how can I deal with this ethical problem, how can my sense of integrity help me to act? Rather than holding traditional classroom debates or analysing complex moral issues that often leave students feeling more confused about what they should do, the UWA Business School ethics course focuses on the skills students need to express their values in the workplace.
The ethics unit is a mandatory part of all of the UWA Business School's Master's degree courses, and is based around a curriculum called ‘Giving Voice to Values' (GVV) developed by Dr Mary Gentile from Babson College in the United States. The UWA Business School is not alone; the curriculum is also being piloted by other leading institutions around the world, including Harvard Business School, INSEAD, MIT, and the Yale School of Management. In fact, over 100 global Business Schools are currently exploring how they might integrate GVV in to their programs. To date, 560 students have taken the GVV course since it was first implemented at UWA in January 2009.
Associate Professor Dave Webb, from the UWA Business School, says that the GVV course is of greater relevance to postgraduate business students than traditional ethics courses.
‘Giving Voice to Values provides a framework for challenging unethical decisions, and teaches students to negotiate a position and neutralise unethical behaviour by proposing an alternative solution that is in line with their values,' said Associate Professor Webb. ‘GVV recognises that values conflict is the norm in business, that at some point most people will be asked to do something that they don't feel good about, that conflicts with their values. By normalising conflict, at least there will be no surprises.
‘Examples of such conflict might include: A junior sales team member who has just embarked on their dream career being told by their boss to perform some ‘creative record-keeping' at the end of the sales quarter. They don't feel good about what they're being asked to do. But being junior, they're thinking, "I don't want to rock the boat in case I lose my job, so I had better keep my mouth shut."
‘Or, it could be something a bit more blatant than that. A young, junior female executive is propositioned by an important corporate client and she doesn't know how to respond because firstly, she knows how important the client is to the company, and secondly, she is told that the behaviour is normal among male senior executives in this firm.
‘You see, the problem isn't about deciphering the ‘right from wrong', or the ‘what' of ethics; it's more about the ‘how': what to say and do when there is conflict and the person wants to respond in line with their values.
‘In our course, we teach students to articulate their values differently. Take the following simple example: what might a salesperson say and do if their boss at a retail bakery asked them to lie to their customers, telling them that the morning's bread was fresh rather than baked the day before? The worker may feel loyalty to their boss, and fear getting fired if they don't do as asked. Assuming the presence of a values conflict and that the salesperson has decided to act in line with their values, a part of the GVV approach includes the development of a script that proposes an alternative solution in line with the boss's needs. This might include selling the bread at a discounted price. Ultimately, this means the salesperson won't have to compromise their values.'
The implementation of values is a skill that has previously been lacking in many business education courses. The Beyond Grey Pinstripes 2007 survey, conducted by the Aspen Institute, found that among MBA students at leading business schools, less than half felt that their business education was preparing them ‘a lot' to manage values conflicts. Worryingly, nearly one in ten students felt that their course was ‘not at all' preparing them to manage values conflicts.
‘Philosophical discussions have their place but we also need to find pathways for action' explains Associate Professor Webb. ‘Yes, students engage in critical analysis and learn about different philosophical schools, but at the end of the day they often just learn how to fall back on one of those schools of thought to justify whatever decision they've already made.
‘These days, ethically-conscious CEO's are looking to employ new graduates with real skills in dealing with complex moral issues.'
With the support of Dr Gentile, the UWA GVV team, which in addition to Associate Professor Webb also includes Assistant Professors Edwards, Chappell and Kirkham, hope to extend the GVV curriculum further based on research with some committed industry partners. ‘In the classroom,' said Associate Professor Webb, ‘what we do at UWA is look at the ethical connections at and between the individual, interpersonal, organisational, industry and global levels. Inevitably, this often results in positive and constructive debate.
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