July 28, 2006

Study explores value of business ethics classes

by Sun Min

CARBONDALE, IL. -- In the wake of major corporate scandals, more and more universities across the country are requiring business students to take ethics classes. But are they effective? A researcher in Southern Illinois University Carbondale's College of Business and Administration found that ethics training does help, but that it highly depends on the context.

Michael D. Michalisin, associate professor of management, will present a paper titled "Can You Teach Business Ethics? An Empirical Investigation," at the Annual Academy of Management Conference in Atlanta, Aug. 11-16. Co-author Charnchai Tangpong holds a doctoral degree in business administration from SIUC (2002) and now teaches at North Dakota State University

"Large-scale corporate scandals such as Enron, World-Com and Arthur Anderson have heightened awareness of the importance of business ethics in business and management education," Michalisin said. "As a result, colleges and universities have responded with increased coverage of business ethics in their core business curricula, and the Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business (AACSB) requires business ethics as a core component of accredited business curricula. The increasing emphasis of ethics education in business programs then begs the question, ‘Can business ethics be taught?'"

Michalisin's study employed a rigorous experimental design with random subject assignments and scenario-based questions. He found that ethics training does appear to affect ethical judgments and decision-making, however, students in their early years of a business program were more receptive to training.

"One possible explanation is that senior-level management courses typically focus more on top management teams and their responsibilities to company shareholders. Therefore, it may not be surprising that our empirical results show that seniors tended to emphasize corporate profits and shareholder wealth maximization over the needs of other stakeholders," he said.

In addition, the Michalisin found that ethics education can significantly influence decisions when students had to consider the effect on suppliers or employees but "being customers themselves, students were not easily manipulated when presented with customer-related scenarios so ethics training was not as effective in that arena," Michalisin said.

Michalisin, the College of Business and Administration's 2006 Graduate Teacher of the Year, hopes his research leads to more schools incorporating ethics training. "Right now, 40 percent of the top 50 business schools require a course in business ethics or social responsibility. You can see how important it is," he said.

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint for the development of the University by the time it celebrates its 150th anniversary in 2019.