Can Business Ethics Be Taught?

David L. Perry, Ph.D.

Recent surveys indicate that most Fortune 500 corporations have developed written codes of ethical business conduct and training programs to communicate those standards to their employees. But many American executives, managers and employees still question the justification of spending valuable company time and resources on ethics training. "Can ethics really be taught to mature adults," they ask, "or is it something that you absorb as a child from your family or religious upbringing?" Fair questions. If ethics cannot truly be "learned" in significant ways by adults, then the value of corporate ethics training programs would indeed be suspect (except, say, as a cynical form of public relations, or as window dressing for an government regulatory agency).

I'm convinced, though, that corporate ethics programs are worthwhile, to the extent that their creators understand what can and cannot be taught and design their programs accordingly. The key is to distinguish between basic moral capacities, which cannot be altered in adults to any great extent, and ethical reasoning and imagination, which can be sharpened and enhanced.

Moral Capacities

Almost every human being is born with capacities for sympathy, fellow-feeling, concern about the well-being of others. The proper development of these capacities is not automatic, but the vast majority of us have developed them because we've been raised in loving families and made stable friendships at an early age. Every so often, of course, we get a jarring glimpse of someone who never had the requisite nurturing, an adult who is relatively intelligent but who somehow never learned how to be compassionate. Serial murderer Ted Bundy was a chilling example. Converting a mean-spirited person or a psychopath to a more ethical disposition late in the game is usually out of the question.

Not even the most sophisticated corporate ethics program will be able to create moral capacities out of nothing. It would be silly to try. In that sense, ethics cannot be taught. Fortunately, 99.99% of businesspeople already have a conscience, and don't need to have one implanted (as if that were possible).

Ethical Reasoning and Imagination

But applying basic ethical principles like fairness in the workplace isn't always easy. Our consciences can have all of the standard equipment, and yet collectively we may not intuit identical resolutions to specific ethical questions:

- Where should you draw the line between a legitimate business courtesy and a bribe?

- How do you hold to exemplary ethical standards when your competitor fights dirty?

- How do you conduct a layoff in the fairest possible manner?

Reaching consensus on these and many other ethical questions in business is not a straightforward task, but it's vital in forming an ethical corporate culture. Ethics training, in turn, can provide a very useful forum for achieving that needed consensus. Rightly structured, it can increase employees' awareness of ethical issues, expand the scope of their ethical vision, and spur their imagination of the consequences of their business decisions for various stakeholders of the firm: customers, suppliers, stockholders et al. In that sense, ethics is akin to an attitude of continuous quality improvement.

Deliberation and Discussion

Perhaps most importantly, a corporate ethics program can simply make ethics an acceptable subject of discussion on the job. Most employees want to work for a company where they don't feel they're being asked to abandon their core values in order to succeed in their jobs. Yet unless they're given formal opportunities and encouragement from management to discuss ethics, they're likely to be silenced by the few cynics among them who think that ethics is for "wimps" or is irrelevant to the bottom line narrowly conceived. Employees need to hear from management that the company depends on their individual integrity to maintain its good name, and is willing to hear their ethical concerns on an ongoing basis.

However, the sort of internal ethics forum I'm advocating shouldn't be implemented in a "fire hose" or "sheep dip" manner characteristic of so many corporate training workshops. Maybe it shouldn't even be called ethics "training," since what is imparted is not really a set of technical skills that can be readily measured. Ethical discernment in business resembles more of an art than a science, though like science it sometimes requires critical reflection on assumptions and beliefs that we've come to take for granted.

Managing to Reinforce Ethical Conduct

Finally, corporate ethics initiatives must go well beyond written codes and employee workshops. The ethics that are taught in formal settings can be easily undermined in other ways. Employees pay very close attention to the subtle (and not-so-subtle) cues given off by their supervisors in day-to-day interactions. Why should employees believe that management is serious about ethical risks if their bosses either don't listen to their concerns or shoot the messengers of unpleasant news? What sense will it make to preach fairness if promotions and compensation are in fact based on who you know rather than individual merit and performance? What message is sent when management allows a salesman to pad his expense account because he's a top performer?

In other words, managers and employees must regularly make the effort to examine the goals, incentives, pressures, and styles of communication that drive behavior in the organization, and ask themselves, Are these factors reinforcing or undermining the ethical standards we want to uphold?

(A slightly modified version of this article was originally published in Washington CEO Magazine, March 1994.)

Go to Dr. Perry’s CV.