Over the last few years, global business and finance has suffered from a culture of irresponsibility and perceived arrogance, leading to the financial crash of 2008.
Spectacular corporate failures such as BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill, NewsCorps’ phone hacking scandal and VW’s recent cheating of emissions tests have only added to the list of bad behaviour by companies.
It’s in that context that Imperial’s Full-Time MBA students take a module called Personal Ethics and Corporate Values, such is the importance of considering ethical behaviour in training business leaders of the future.
Taught over an intensive two days, the module challenges students to assess their own personal values and think about how they would apply in a corporate setting.
Dr Charlie Donovan, who led the module, explained that the goal of the module was to deepen the MBA students’ understanding of how failures of responsibility occur and strengthen their tools for dealing with morally challenging situations. “As senior managers in the corporate sector, the students will increasingly be faced by complex situations that involve ethical decision-making.”
As senior managers in the corporate sector, the students will increasingly be faced by complex situations that involve ethical decision-making.
“Rarely will they have a choice between a course of action that is unambiguously right or wrong.”
The module began with a discussion intended to provoke the MBA students to consider their own values. Ed Halliwell, a leading mindfulness teacher and writer, led the students in a reflective exercise to delve into their personal conscience.
MBA student Alisa Anantvoranich enjoyed the combination of case studies on morality, mindfulness sessions and the personal reflection time; “Each activity complemented one another and fitted well together to culminate in a powerful final reflection activity.”
Dr Donovan knows how important this can be in the world of business. “My interest in developing this class was borne out of my professional working experience,” he explains. “Having worked at Enron and BP, I saw my fair share of corporate scandals from the inside.”
“I never intended to teach ethics class once I became a teacher, but neither could I shake this basic question: why do good people within companies end up doing bad things? People who I knew as friends, parents and leaders in their community became villains in the eyes of the press, their peers, and the general public. This class is in many ways an extension of my own search for an answer to that question.”
Why do good people within companies end up doing bad things? People who I knew as friends, parents and leaders in their community became villains in the eyes of the press, their peers, and the general public.
The second day started with a discussion about a current scandal – the Volkswagen emissions tests – and the MBA students debated who should take the responsibility in this particular instance; the engineers who wrote the programme to cheat the tests, the CEO or the EU regulators.
After a brief break, the students were surprised when a guest arrived to literally put their conclusions on the spot. Pascale Harter is an award-winning news reporter and the presenter of From Our Own Correspondent on the BBC World Service.
Three students role acted the different characters in the VW scandal, and under the lights and cameras faced the grilling from Harter that she normally reserves for her on-air interviews.
“Having an opinion on an issue is easy,” said student Alex Sear, “but defending it in front of a professional journalist with a camera in your face is very tough. Pascale was great – it shows how a skilled interviewer can focus in on the most difficult items, the subtleties you’re hoping she might overlook.”
Harter was impressed with the performance of the MBAs under pressure. “It was clear they come from a generation which is more comfortable with the media than many current business leaders.”
After the interviews, Harter led a discussion with the MBAs about her experiences under pressure. “Their questions were also very shrewd,” she said. “For a journalist it’s boring when people trot out semi-automatic answers and repeat received wisdom. It was invigorating to see keen minds really turning over tricky topics and examining them from different angles.”
“I expected to encounter a fairly cynical crowd who thought profit and corporate expediency trumped all, but instead I met future business leaders who seem determined to use their moral compass in their careers.”
Time and time again I have seen people with immense power and vast experience caught entirely off guard by the consequences of their decisions or their company’s policy.
For Harter, it was important that the MBA students reflect on their business integrity and have the chance to experience being under the spotlight. “Time and time again I have seen people with immense power and vast experience caught entirely off guard by the consequences of their decisions or their company’s policy. And I wonder: if they had a foretaste of what it actually feels like to be put in the media spotlight would they have made that same decision that put them there?”
An MBA is often described as a toolkit for business leadership and this class was no different. “I am not teaching ethics to our MBA students,” explained Dr Donovan, “but rather giving them an opportunity to look at their own moral compass and encouraging them to develop practices that will help them stay connected to it as their careers progress.”
Harter also had some advice for the MBA students for the future: “Your integrity is the only lasting possession you have, and it’s highly valuable professionally as well as personally. Don’t sell it. Ever.”
Alex Sear, MBA 2015-16.
“It’s quite confronting learning how a bad culture in an organisation can lead to good people doing morally corrupt things. It’s even more confronting when the lecturer has stories about where he used to work. He made the module very thought provoking.”
“I’d like to think my ethics were already quite sound, but the module will make me rethink office cultures and their effect on corporation behaviour. I’d also say it’s made me more certain of what role I’d like to take on in my career.”
Alisa Anantvoranich, MBA 2015-16.
“As much as I would like to think I have complete free-will and independence of thought to act ethically, cautionary tales from the module reveal otherwise (i.e. Milgram’s electric-shock studies and Zimbardo’s Stanford prison experiment). If something doesn’t sit well with me in future I need to firstly be mindful of it, and secondly take a step back to consult external parties for a clearer perspective.”
“Pascale showed that the threat of losing one’s job is nothing compared to the threat of being ostracised. At the end of the day it’s not about the numbers, the sales or the votes, it’s the legacy you leave behind.”
Sylvain Poncet, MBA 2015-16.
“The module made me realize that under certain circumstances, good people can behave in an unethical way. During the last day, Charlie gave us the opportunity to think on our own of the way to prevent being in such a situation. Personally, I’ve defined my ethical boundary by thinking about how I will judge my attitude in 20 years. If I realize that I will not be proud of what I’ve done in 20 years, I should not act in that way. Thanks to this module, I’ll be able to identify potential situations that contradict my values.”