Ethics courses at B-schools: Redemption for dishonest corporates?
“We hope that various courses such as corporate governance and ethics influence students to move beyond a knowledge and skill-building objective to a more purposeful existence that can bring a positive change to the society”, Padmini Srinivasan, chairperson of the two-year MBA course at IIM Bangalore, was quoted as saying. It makes one wonder that for leading institutes such as the IIMs or XLRI, it must become imperative to accept the responsibility for guiding young citizens to achieve more than a degree, a stamp or a high-paying job. ‘Indian ethos and business ethics’ is a mandatory course that is also being introduced by the All India Council for Technical Education which would educate pupils keeping the mind the Gurukul system of learning and karma.
In the wake of multiple scams, scandals, and skulduggery, it seems viable to take a step back and look at courses that prepare youngsters for the world of work. Relooking at what goes in behind the “manufacture” of future corporates might help us understand what went wrong and led to this era dominated by the rise of the misanthropes.
It is not that the B-school courses so far did not focus on corporate governance but the focus was on legal compliance, wealth maximization for shareholders and planning more effective compensation structures. This format is now in the process of undergoing a shift with a focus on tackling ethical dilemmas that managers often face with the aim to help them rise above their conflicts and make the “right” decisions. With recent headlines spanning across the cases of Vijay Mallya’s flight from ethics, Uber’s practices driving them towards a precarious edge and Nirav Modi proving that, just like diamonds, negative reputations are also forever, ethical malpractices seem to be running unleashed. That said, there is a silver lining – these malpractices have not gone unheard or unpunished – albeit without the most punctual redressal.
But is that all that can be done in this regard? Reactive punitive measures, scandalous headlines and temporary public gossip and boycotting till the next scoop cannot be the only answers to these cases of corporate delinquency. It is in this light that the idea of proactive business course-based tools seems to make a lot of sense.
Horns of dilemma
B-schools across India are arming themselves with ethics-centered courses hopefully as more than just an attempt at meeting this unwritten mandate. From onboarding visiting and permanent faculty to addressing these course modules, to redesigning traditional course structures themselves, to updating their case-study banks for the inclusion of the more recent cases, changes are definitely underway. The position of these B-schools often seem a bit perilous – their attempts at change, while being applauded on one hand, could also be regarded as admission of their role in creating an army of not-so-ethical, motivated, number-driven, high-achieving professions till now. This does not call for a blame-game or a who-started-it activity but demands a deeper understanding in terms of what aspects of these courses need to be relooked at and why. For example, with the Chanda Kochhar case, the question is not how and why there were quid pro quo dealings but rather how many of such cases of malpractice are we missing out on simply because there aren’t enough whistleblowers making a bigger racket. Is it our inclination to flout rules and escape getting caught? Can a few courses during professional training change that?
Are courses that discuss and debate the Indian Reality enough to make students realize the absolute necessity for ethical conduct? The Indian Institutes of Management (IIMs), XLRI Jamshedpur and SPJIMR Mumbai sure seem to think that they can incorporate into the syllabus such courses that would surely change a lot more than simply the course structure. They have also invested in global experts to include more than a local perspective and also add a global note of relevance to the courses. XLRI, “to reflect the contemporary corporate turbulent markets of today", has incorporated about 30 recent case studies and SPJIMR has made it compulsory for students to interview top leaders to understand how the concept of ethics functions in the “real world”.
It is never easy to be the leading institutes that other institutes and corporate firms look towards for inspiration, guidance and also as a one-stop talent pool of future leaders. Moreover, the allegations that not enough was included on ethics in the courses so far should in no way undermine or negate the positive aspects of such a change. That said, the courses should be designed in such a way that ethical learnings and guidelines are incorporated seamlessly into the course format without sticking out like a sore thumb and being regarded as a compulsory criterion that must be met.
Beyond a module
“Ethic”, etymologically, is derived from the Greek phrase, “h thik tekhn” which literally translates to “the science of morals”. It might be interesting to note here that it is regarded as a science and not an art – the rules here then are not open to interpretation – two plus two can never be five or twenty-two – there is only black and white and no room for grey. However, if ethical concepts of right and wrong, virtue and vice or justice and crime can only be looked at as mathematical entities, certain philosophical deliberations of Kant, Wittgenstein or Singer lose their relevance with regard to the philosophy of the mind and the personalized, private aspect of ethics.
Moreover, being social constructs, could ethics be regarded as static rules that stand the test of time and situational realities and never change? These questions are not intended as triggers for moral equivocation but rather to dig deeper and understand how these “rules could be taught in a way that they surpass the confines of being a mere module to be studied. They need to be understood as everyday laws that have an everyday applicability and that can go in concurrence with financial targets. Why should ethics be regarded as a deterrent to business? Has our corporate greed risen to such levels where doing the “right” thing cannot fetch us what we want anymore?
Redemption, redressal and a renaissance of thought
Whether these ethics-based inclusions reduce the number of ethical lapses in the future, prevent corporate collapses and lead to a more conscious and conscientious corporate workforce, time will tell. Till time reveals the effectiveness of these endeavors, there is a shift in thought that is necessary – a shift that makes people question the set ways of going about work, that leads us on to adapt to a dynamic corporate landscape ethically and that allows us to delve deeper into every-day processes to ensure that they are in keeping with the moral demands of our times.
India is not alone in this movement towards an ethically conscious society. There has been a shift on a global scale and B-schools across the world are creating teaching frameworks within their courses to address ethical dilemmas. Warwick Business School, for example, has taken the aid of theater to explore the concerns raised over the Uber harassment case. Juliane Iannarelli, diversity and inclusion advocate at b-school accreditation body AACSB International, went on record stating that “Ethics has been at the forefront of the topic of conversation of late” and that, “Every high-profile scandal brings the subject into focus for business schools, who are, increasingly, exploring the roles of individuals and companies in combatting wrongdoing.” Taking proactive steps towards training people in ethics beforehand makes a lot of sense since it demands redressal and leaves no room for us to wait around for “high-profile cases” and then take action.
Bala Krishnamoorthy, Associate Dean, and professor of strategy at the School of Business Management at NMIMS, also makes use of drama and role-play to teach her students to encourage them to ponder upon decision points and justifications based on their appraisal of situational aspects.
We might not be able to blame all ethical transgressions conclusively on greed since greed could be relative but the psychology of greed and our predisposition to achieve (or overachieve) our targets, financial or otherwise, opens up doors to many more debates set against the backdrop of ethics. Whether it is an age-old act of defiance and disobedience by taking a bit of the forbidden fruit or indulging in fraudulent activities that cost one more than just money, unethical behavior has, more often than not, led to downfalls. While the rules of business might be dynamic and changing every day, certain rules never change. Maybe one of the perils of being a part of an aspirational economy is that at times, we aspire for a little too much, a little too early and try to achieve that aspiration, however, we can. Here’s hoping that consciously teaching young professionals to be ethical, would make a difference and lead to a more honest economy.