My Experience With Teaching Ethics Session As Part Of Core Marketing Course

This past week I had a chance to teach an ethics session as part of a larger, core marketing course that I am teaching at Irvine University. I write this post to share my experiences on what worked and what didn't.

Now as context, about four years ago in 2005 I wrote a post on covering ethics as part of business school curricula, and to make a long story short, back then I didn't have a very comfortable opinion on how effective that type of training would be and whether students would want to pay for such training. I have since that timeframe (and based on comments from folks) augmented my opinion a little bit in that while I feel that ethics is something that should not be exclusive to business schools, it is something that leaders need to work with, and as such, is a fundamental topic for business schools to address.

That said, I am not quite comfortable with how I addressed ethics in this past week's session. Setting my effectiveness and student perceptions aside for the moment, here's the basic path that I took:

  • Though I'm no business historian, I characterized the history of the revitalization of ethics in the business schools as falling into two mini-eras in recent history- One of these mini-eras started on the order of five to ten years ago and was driven by a lot of the corporate scandals, executive fiascoes (e.g., Enron), and need for better financial reporting (e.g., Sarbanes-Oxley). In this first mini-era, business schools introduced ethics into their curricula with some of them incorporating ethics into leadership courses with others taking ethics and spreading a little bit of those ideas into all courses. Waving my hands a lot, I cited Michael Lewis' piece, "The End" (Of Wall Street), the role of credit default swaps, and failure of ethics (among other things) being at the heart of the cause of the economic downturn. So I concluded that business schools can still do more. Mini-era two is taking place with MBA graduates taking part in the student-led MBA Oath, which has been going viral.
  • I indicated that leaders need to be concerned with ethics - basically what I said above in that it is not the sole responsibility of business school students, but that we can further the practice of ethics.
  • I promoted two key frameworks for analyzing ethical concerns- Both of these frameworks are from Chapter 4 of the McGraw-Hill Irwin textbook, "Marketing", 9th Edition, by Kerin et. al. One framework was the standard, 2x2 consulting-like matrix that broke ideas into 4 quadrants with (Ethical-Not Ethical on one axis and Legal-Not Legal on the other). We spent time discussing certain scenarios and whether they fell into one quadrant or the other. I argued that the legal axis was, in principle, more straightforward than the ethics axis, where the degree of overlap and misfit between individual, company, general business, and international ethical principles are more fuzzy and can require reconciliation whether by management, ethics officer or other. I cited Transparency International as a data point and source for international practices and norms for ethical conduct. The second ethical framework that we covered conceptually balanced profit maximization and shareholder value against items like environmental, societal, and other factors. Here I feel that the best management practices for balancing things are not so well-developed, but I struggle a bit with how this area should be advanced.
  • I talked about ethical codes of conducts (as documents that need to be affirmed by employees in many companies) and associated online training programs - although I did not have example references or documents to point to off-the-cuff.

Wit respect to the big picture, I was able to cite a number of cases where companies (e.g., Body Shop, POM, BP) have made ethical and social concerns an essential part of their business and/or marketing strategy, but I think my ability to cite, crisp quantitative information could have been better. What are the costs of being ethical? What are the costs of not being ethical? Where does being ethical add to the bottom-line in terms of revenues, sales commissions, shareholder value, reduced churn, etc.? The answers I provided to these questions were either a bit long-winded or not available at the tip of my tongue.

In any case, if folks have thoughts on ethics, teaching ethics, receiving ethics training, etc., please feel free to share your stories. I am interested in what works and doesn't work for folks.


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