You’re hired! Now what do you think about the ethics of business and finance?

The business world is frequently rocked by allegations of greed, excessive pay and scandals involving dodgy products and services.

Yet careers in the sector are some of the most keenly sought by graduates. In the UK, Business and Administration Studies was the most popular higher education subject for 2015-16 according to UCAS, ahead of Creative Arts and Design, Biological Sciences and subjects allied to Medicine. In the US, the world’s biggest economy, business degrees rule the roost.

Applications to business schools appear to be unaffected by examples of corporate skulduggery. Recent reports suggest Volkswagen is willing to buy back some of the 600,000 diesel cars it fitted with emission test “cheat” devices and compensate owners more than $1 billion. Time will tell if the German carmaker’s sales are dented by a scandal that followed in the wake of Enron, WorldCom and Lehman Brothers.

Despite these cases, the public retains its appetite for a voyeuristic diet served up by entrepreneur-based TV show. Audience ratings for “Dragons’ Den” and “The Apprentice” – the latter famously fronted by presidential hopeful Donald Trump in the States – remain robust.

It therefore seems timely to delve into the ethical mindset of the students and alumni charged with driving the wheels of industry. What do the next generation of senior managers and boardroom executives think about the roles of character and virtues in the fields of business and finance?

Do they draw on virtue-based reasoning to navigate industry’s moral maze?

Are business schools part of the solution when it comes to seeking ethical clarity in corporate life – or are they part of the problem?

Such questions will be examined in the Jubilee Centre’s Virtuous Character in Business and Finance project, which aims to influence and inform business ethics education in the UK. The project will examine the ethical commitment of business students and experienced professionals and discover if business ethics education prepares people for modern workplace dilemmas.

Researchers will look at three specific groups: first-year undergraduates at the beginning of their studies; final-year students about to graduate; and alumni with at least five years’ work experience.

Typically, the undergraduates will be studying courses such as business management, accountancy, logistics, and hospitality and tourism management. They will be asked to respond to six business-based ethical dilemmas, answer questions about their own character traits and outline the traits they believe an ideal professional should display.

We have also chosen to conduct semi-structured interviews with a number of respondents. The format will provide more nuanced responses and allow researchers to gain a better understanding of the conditions under which virtue can be enacted. The sessions will allow us to explore participants’ motivations for pursuing a career in business or finance, their conceptions of a well-lived life, and how the two issues relate to each other.

There will also be a smaller number of interviews with business school academics to establish if, and why, there have been perceived changes in character strengths and how character and the virtues informs their teaching.

The study should throw new light on the ethical motivations and behaviours espoused by business schools, which as institutions are responsible for training recruits for a vast array of occupations.

By their nature, the professions of teaching and medicine are perceived as being ethically good. Teachers and doctors serve the common good of society. Conversely, one of the reasons it has been hard for business schools to establish themselves as professional schools is that people are not willing to recognise business as a profession. That means it is harder to make a case for business serving the common good, especially when it is mired in scandal, the hoodwinking of customers and fat-cat pay rows.

The logic of capitalism is such that maximising long-term owner value is written into the structure of most companies. But good, virtuous people will not purse that aim at all costs. They are also interested in personal good and personal flourishing. What is interesting is how people in business mitigate these competing demands.

The Centre hopes the project will allow business and finance to rediscover their true vocation – to serve the wider interests of society. In order to achieve this, there may need to be changes in the way business school students and alumni understand character and their conduct as professionals.

Dr Matthew Sinnicks, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

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