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Ethically Speaking

What are today's students learning about business ethics?

Students in business school have always taken ethics classes, but today's university programs are taking ethics learning to a higher level, teaching more courses on the subject and even integrating ethics instruction into other classes (think finance ethics, management ethics, employment ethics and so on). According to Alfred Gini, a philosophy professor at Loyola University in Chicago and associate editor of Business Ethics Quarterly, "Because of Enron, all MBA programs, all schools of business, are looking at themselves and saying, 'What happened here, and why did it happen?'"

At the Graduate School of Business at Columbia University in New York City, which is also home to the Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. Center for Leadership and Ethics, students learn how to develop alternative strategies when faced with ethical dilemmas. Other schools focus on giving students a barometer for how to approach ethical decisions. Ethics classes at Loyola Marymount University's MBA program in Los Angeles, for instance, focus heavily on self-awareness in decision-making.

"I feel like most people truly want to do the right thing," says LMU professor Rabbi Arthur Gross-Schaefer. "However, there are many barriers, including not having tools they can effectively and quickly use when they're in uncharted waters." He teaches his students to develop personal mission statements, core values and decision models--a sort of toolbox for ethical decision making they can take with them when they graduate.

Real-world application of classroom lessons is a primary focus of many programs, which often invite guest speakers in to discuss how ethical decisions have affected their businesses. Joe Mechlinski, a 1999 economics graduate of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, is one example: He's used his college ethics training in more than one business situation--and spoken about it to college students, too.

In 2000, Mechlinski co-founded EntreQuest, a sales training and development company in Baltimore, with Jason Pappas, 38. When their first and only client, a company that helps kids get into college, attempted to breach their contract and leave EntreQuest, Mechlinski, 28, and his partner took stock. They could sue, dragging both companies through the muck and eventually destroying the other company, or come up with another solution. Mechlinski and Pappas didn't want to put the company out of business, so, remembering his ethics training, Mechlinski stepped out of the situation, looked at it from all sides and decided to meet with the company one more time. After about two hours, he says, "We walked away with a different agreement--which made [our] company significantly more money." The solution made good business sense and moral sense, and Mechlinski and Pappas have since built EntreQuest to 2005 projected sales of approximately $1.2 million.

Ethics instruction today is less about "do this, don't do that" and more about developing strategies for dealing with problems. Says John W. Dienhart, director of the Albers Business Ethics Initiative at Seattle University, "Once we get the groundwork settled--that I'm not going to tell [students] what the right thing is, but that we're going to talk about the difficult problems we face in business, and we're going to try to deal with those as best we can--[the students] are all over it; they love it."

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This article was originally published in the December 2005 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Ethically Speaking.

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