A new research report, launched on September 27 by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham, identifies honesty and integrity as important virtues for experienced business professionals, but finds such an awareness lacking among undergraduates, for whom financial aspirations trump any references to moral virtues or the common good.
There has been a steep rise in the number of papers highlighting the importance of specific business virtues in business journals over the past few decades, and the publication of Springer’s 2017 Handbook of Virtue Ethics in Business and Management indicates that the movement has become mainstream. Within UK companies, a values-driven agenda, often highlighting bespoke business values such as integrity, seems to be gradually superseding a narrow rule-and-code driven agenda. However, as these ‘values’ are rarely understood as personal traits of character (namely ‘virtues’), it would be premature to say that virtue ethics has yet dramatically altered ethical conceptions in the UK business world. The report indicates that this new agenda has at least had very little practical effect on business education in general and business ethics education in particular.
The context and nature of the study
The findings in this report – written in the wake of a series of high-profile corporate failures and financial scandals – are drawn from survey and interview data from 790 UK participants across three cohorts: first-year business school students, final-year business school students, and business school alumni with at least 5 years’ work experience, as well as data drawn from interviews with educators in UK business schools.
The research found that business students value career competencies like time management and communication skills as important character strengths,. However, honesty was considerably less prevalent as a valued character strength and there was virtually ‘zero growth’ in virtue-based reasoning between the first and final year of students’ time at university, as judged by responses to ethical workplace dilemmas. In contrast to the students’ responses, honesty as a personal virtue was clearly identified by experienced professionals in interviews. Honesty was often mentioned alongside integrity. For example, there were over 30 references to honesty and over 50 references to integrity in interviews with experienced professionals. Moreover, when presented with workplace dilemmas, virtue-based reasoning was more evident in the responses of business school graduates than in those of business school students.
While aspirations to serve the common good – a key goal of any profession – were mentioned intermittently by participants as a motivation to pursue business, financial rewards were more prominent. When asked what motivated them to pursue a career in business and finance, ‘money’ rather than working for the public good was the most popular reward highlighted by students. More than one student simply typed three dollar signs – $$$ – to explain their inspiration.
Some positives also
The report also reveals positive aspects about the contemporary UK business world. Established business professionals link a culture of honesty and collegiality to the formation of a positive work environment. Furthermore, 94% of experienced professionals indicated they feel motivated to work effectively most of the time, and 97% stated they feel empowered to be authentic in the workplace. The report suggests a renewed emphasis on these positive aspects of work could help to imbue business students with a greater sense of ethical practice when they graduate.
The report offers some constructive recommendations. It points to the importance of students gaining practical experience to learn about moral conduct in the business environment. It suggests the inclusion of real-life scenarios in business ethics teaching could expose students to workplace dilemmas and encourage them to consider virtuous ways to resolve them, hence bringing their modes of reasoning about workplace dilemmas into line with those deemed most productive by experienced professionals.
This report shows that, while there is increased interest in UK business and finance circles in a values-based agenda, a comprehensive virtue-based approach to business practice has not yet taken hold, either in theoretical business ethics or in general business discourse. This is particularly apparent among students of business and finance who do not seem to glean many new understandings of the role of virtuous practice in business during their undergraduate education. This study highlights ways in which shortcomings in the learning environments may limit business students’ development of core understandings needed for virtue literacy and virtue practice. It offers suggestions for improvement and will, hopefully, pave the way for a fuller discussion of issues that are likely to become increasingly topical in a world in which terms such as ‘responsible business’, ‘corporate social responsibility’, ‘sustainability’, and ‘ethical consumption’ are steadily gaining traction.
Professor Kristján Kristjánsson was the Principal Investigator on the project ‘Character Virtues in Business and Finance’. The research report was co-authored by James Arthur, Yan Huo and Francisco Moller. The full report can be viewed here.