Someone’s gonna get spanked: teaching ethics

gettingspanked(by John Beck, author of Good vs. Good)

When I was in my early 30s with three young kids at home, I renounced my childhood religion—Mormonism. My father tried to talk me out of it by asking how else my children would learn moral behavior. “How will you reinforce what is right and wrong without going to church? I don’t know how I’d have raised you kids without Sunday school and the youth programs.”

I pointed out to him that we both knew good church-going Mormons with a lot of variation in their moral compasses. I particularly focused on a relative of ours who always held top church positions, but who we knew had swindled and cheated his way through life.

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I also told my dad that I believe people learn ethics and how to live their values by example—more so than through any instruction they get in Sunday school or church sermons. What I didn’t say to him, though I was thinking it, was that I had always respected him for his natural honesty. I don’t remember getting a lecture from him on the topic, but I’ve tried to be really truthful my whole life—to be like him.

So when the topic of teaching ethics in business schools arises, I have always demurred on being involved in figuring out exactly how to do that, even though I believe most business people could do with a big booster shot of integrity and honesty. But when it comes to determining how to administer that shot, I am almost at a loss.

Here’s why: by the time students have entered their business programs the majority have already had a few years (or more) of experience working in the real world. Most of them have already encountered an ethical dilemma or two on the job, and they’ve already made some decisions about how to act and react based on lessons learned in Sunday School or from the role-models in their lives. Or, maybe the way they act is purely genetic. I can’t be certain.

But I have no doubt that after they get their degrees they will face even more ethical challenges—and the sweet siren song of temptation. This is why I believe business school educators should do something to encourage graduates to be more ethical in the careers. I know employers certainly think business schools should be advocating ethics in the classroom. But I believe there are only two real ways that teachers can impact “integrity” at all:

  1. Through example. Most graduate students have at least one professor or administrator that becomes a bit of a role model for them. Many students are hungry for wisdom and advice; they are paying very close attention and take what faculty and administrators say and do very seriously.
  2. By using “teaching moments” to make it utterly clear that a bad choice can lead to very clear and—in some cases—disastrous consequences.

Schools are a microcosm of what goes on in the business world—there is cheating, bad behavior, and “gray” areas through which students have to navigate.  Anyone who has been around an educational institution very long has seen a lot of bad—sometimes completely unethical—behavior from school administrators, instructors and staff.  And those real-world examples have much more power any lecture or assigned reading.

In my first teaching job, I remember being asked by another faculty member to review a paper by a student she believed to be ghostwritten. I read the paper before even glancing at the cover page. After I read it, I remember thinking: whoever wrote this is possibly the brightest undergraduate ever—clearly smarter than I am! I had to look up a number of words that were used in the paper. Then I turned to the cover page and found the author was the school’s star quarterback.

In a conference call arranged among the quarterback/author, the professor, and me, I asked the student to explain the main idea in the paper, as well as define a list of words that he had used. The student was clearly clueless about all of these. We also heard someone whispering answers in the background. I concurred with the professor’s decision to give the student an “F” on the paper due to clear cheating, which meant that the student would receive a “D” in the course.

Ultimately, the department’s leadership and a university vice president intervened to change the grade of the paper to a “C”. This meant that the student got a passing grade in the course and was able to continue as the starting quarterback. What kind of message do you think that sends? What kind of behavior do you think that encourages? We can’t expect students to do the right thing when academic organizations behave so badly.

Compare that response to an incident last year, when it was reported that about half the students in a Harvard government course cheated on an exam. This case turned out to be one of the largest cheating scandals in memory. After a lengthy investigation, about 70 of the students were asked to leave the university.  I don’t believe anyone involved in that case—even the students who didn’t cheat—will ever forget what happened. The school’s response turned into a powerful teaching moments, which also reignited the debate on the importance of addressing ethics in education.

As I said before, I have no idea how to teach ethics, but I do know that educators can have a powerful impact on their students. Earlier this year, after realizing several teams in one of my courses had engaged in plagiarism on a mid-term project, I decided to do something I had never done before. I devoted most of a 3-hour class to discussing the issue, and outlining the consequences. I told students that all the members of any team that committed plagiarism would automatically fail not just the assignment but the entire course—even if there were people on the team who didn’t know a thing about the infraction. It was a metaphorical punch in the gut. In 25 years of teaching, that may have been the only time I was confident I had every single student’s unequivocal attention—no texting, no web surfing. Dead silence.

After some color started coming back to the students’ faces, I offered a big concession:  teams had a second chance to re-submit their assignments, but the grades for the redo would be discounted by a full-grade (an A paper would get a B, a B would get a C, etc.) But I was not going to tell them which teams I had discovered plagiarizing—if any team feared they might have made a mistake copying words, images, or ideas without attribution, they should resubmit the entire project. Over half of the more than 30 teams resubmitted their assignments knowing full well that their grade would probably be significantly lower.

During the next class, I reminded the students that there are no “do overs” in the real world—there is no safety net. There is only getting fired. By the looks on their faces, I think that the lesson had hit home in a way a lecture or a hypothetical exercise could never have done.

If a business school student (any type of student, really) acts in an unethical way, there have to be consequences. Many teachers avoid the confrontation—it inevitably results in more work.  By and large, administrators also are understandably loath to deal with the paperwork, the appeals, and the threats of lawsuits for taking action against a student who has veered into an ethical grey area. But if schools really want to address the issue of integrity in a way that’s truly impactful, then they themselves must model honesty, consistency, and the reality of consequences. Arguably, schools don’t need a curriculum to do this—no amount of case studies, readings, videos, or discussions can really drive this point home.  What they do need is the gumption and willingness to shine a spotlight on those dark and ugly teaching moments (no one said teaching was all roses) and give them the oxygen and attention they deserve. This is how teachers—or anyone for that matter—can make an indelible impression: model integrity and pause to make a powerful point when needed.  Sunday school is optional.

(This originally appeared as a post in John Beck’s blog. illustration: Jim Forest/flickr)


Published by

Brooke Allen

Founder – Viral Virtue, Inc.