Even the best of us are not as ethical as we think we are.
That’s what William E. Jackson III, Ph.D., professor of finance and management and the Culverhouse Smith Foundation Chair of Business Integrity tells his students.
It’s Jackson’s task to alert future workers to ethical risks they might face in the workplace. That means he prods them to ask hard questions:
- What is human nature, and why do we do the things we do?
- How do we determine what we need to do?
- How do we make decisions?
- How did we come to embrace the values and beliefs we have now?
- How do we evaluate those values and beliefs?
Those who think those questions are better posed in a philosophy class rather than a business school might be referred to whatever Scandal Of The Day – insider trading, accounting fraud, discrimination – dominates headlines. That’s why, Jackson says, the Culverhouse commitment is to not only teach classes devoted to business ethics, but to incorporate value-based conversations into every class taught, from introductory courses through grad school.
“Our advantage is that we’ve done it for a while, we believe in it, and we push it,” says Jackson of the ethics emphasis permeating all programs. “I tell students that if they embrace these concepts, it could be life-changing.”
By asking tough questions, students learn to think backwards – to envision the kind of person they want to be. Each is required to write their own code of ethics, including not only what they won’t do, but what they’re doing now to work toward their vision of their future selves.
As Jackson interviewed senior executives about their career paths, one banker made a comment that particularly impressed this researcher. “The work at this company has not only made me a better manager, but a better person.” Jackson challenges students to be able to make the same claim.
Such campus conversations can lead to mentoring long past graduation. An accounting graduate was asked to do something that conflicted with what he thought he had been taught at Culverhouse. He knew that, when faced with a difficult choice, prudent people seek input from seasoned professionals. The student called his former accounting professor, asking for advice on how to handle an uncertain situation. He had been trained to think backwards, considering the consequences rather than following blindly.
Jackson also pushes students further, asking them to consider “positive” ethics – such as the fairest use of tax monies -- that reveal each individual’s assumptions about right and wrong.
“It’s important not just to avoid scandals, but to consider the fundamentals of more complex issues – and thinking backward of why you think why you do. It’s about understanding why your thinking leads to a certain conclusion, and which conclusions might be better.”
Jeannie McLean is a guest blogger for Culverhouse.