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press release

Students at UK Business Schools Value Financial Rewards Over Honesty

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.

Concluding remarks

 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.


Thank You Letters Awards targets record entries from children

The dying art of letter writing and the simple act of saying “thank you” are being revived in a national award scheme for children run by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues.

The Thank You Letter Awards encourage primary and secondary pupils to put pen to paper and express gratitude to an inspirational group or individual. In the past, youngsters have chosen to write to Harry Potter author J K Rowling, football star Lionel Messi and actress Angelina Jolie as well as medics, relatives, the armed forces and a pet dog.

Last year, more than 200 schools across took part with pupils aged five to 16 contributing 41,000 letters. As the scheme gets underway for 2016-17, the Centre hopes to build on the success and sign up many more schools, generating more than 70,000 letters in a huge outpouring of national gratitude.

The schools can run their own competitions, which can be broken down into year groups or classes. The Jubilee Centre provides book vouchers to schools for taking part.

Schools submit their top five entries to the Jubilee Centre’s national awards and the winners will be invited to a special prize giving at the House of Lords in the summer.

Jubilee Centre Development Officer Vicci Hogan, who co-ordinates the awards, has read hundreds of children’s thank you letters and is always impressed by the dedication of the young scribes. Vicci says the scheme is about celebrating gratitude and developing the character of young people rather than an academic exercise in linguistic dexterity, so it is the substance and tone of the letters that matters.

Vicci says: “We have created age categories taking into consideration literacy levels so we don’t compare across huge age divides. We are interested in what the pupils are writing about and the way in which they express gratitude to others.

“The recipient of the letter might be someone they know well such as a family member or it could be a person in an official position, such as a teacher, a sports coach or a doctor. The range of people and organisations is really varied and we have had letters dedicated to strangers involved in acts of kindness.

“It is always a pleasure to read the letters and it is great to see school children expressing genuine sentiments of gratitude so thoughtfully.

“So what makes a good thank you letter? I think it is just being genuine and giving good examples of things people have done.”

Dr Tom Harrison, Director of Education at the Jubilee Centre, helps to judge the awards.

He says: “The proliferation of digital communication, such as email and text, as well as social media platforms like Snapchat and Facebook, means letter-writing has become something of a dying art. There will be young people at school who have never composed a handwritten letter, let alone a letter expressing thanks.

“Yet anyone who has ever received a thank you letter will know how powerful and enriching it can be. Saying ‘thank you’ to someone is a simple act but it can have such a profoundly positive effect on both the recipient and the person giving thanks.

“Gratitude is one of the key virtues. When a young person understands what it means to give thanks, it also encourages them to start to thinking about what they might do to give back – it is therefore associated with being an active citizen, someone who pro-actively seeks opportunities to help other people.”

Here are some examples of pupils’ thank you letters from 2016


The virtues and vices of social media sites

More than half of UK parents think social media sites like Facebook and Twitter hamper the moral development of their children, according to a poll for The Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues based at the University of Birmingham.

The survey also found that 40% of parents are concerned or extremely concerned about the negative impact of social media on young people.

The Parent Poll provides a unique insight into parental social media use, the perceived daily habits of their children and widespread anxieties about the influence of online networks in 2016.

Other key findings include:

  • Only 15% of parents agree that social media supports/enhances a young person’s character.
  • Anger, arrogance, ignorance, bad judgment and hatred are the top negative character traits, or vices, reported by parents on social media sites.
  • Almost three-quarters (72%) of respondents who use social media, however, believe they see content containing a positive moral message at least once a day.
  • The ‘Character Strengths’ that are seen to be promoted most regularly on social media sites are humour, appreciation of beauty, creativity, love, courage and kindness.

The Parent Poll was commissioned as part of the Jubilee Centre’s project on the Influence of Parents and the Media, which is looking at the impact of social media on young people’s moral character, in particular with regard to empathy and honesty.

The UK-wide poll questioned 1,738 parents of children aged 11 to 17. The average age of the respondents was 40 and the majority work in senior and middle management. Parents were asked about their own experience and use of social media sites and to estimate that of their children.

Some 93% of parents use at least one social media site, the most popular being: Facebook (83%); YouTube (48%); Twitter (41%); Instagram (28%); Google+ (20%); Snapchat (18%).

The most popular sites are broadly the same as those used by young people in the poll, although use of the instant messaging service Snapchat is higher among children (38% compared with 18% of adults in this sample).

Interestingly, parents acknowledge that 64% of 11 and 12-year-olds use Facebook in violation of its age restriction. Facebook requires users to be at least 13 before they can create an account[1].

There are similar findings for Snapchat (30%) and Instagram (35%), which also have age restrictions of 13.

It’s not all bad news…

Whilst the negative effects of social media sites are well publicised, the potential positive impact of these sites seem to be given less attention. The results of this poll, however, suggest that it’s not all bad.

There appears to be some cause for optimism in that 72% of respondents who use social media believe they see content with a positive moral message at least once a day[2].

This figure is higher than the percentage who regularly see negative moral messages, suggesting that social media is not just an environment for vice.

The poll asked parents to consider an “A to Z” of character strengths[3], from “Appreciation of beauty” to “Zest,” and to say which of these positive character traits they see promoted regularly (“at least once a month”) on social media sites.

The top five character strengths were: humour (52%); appreciation of beauty (51%); creativity (44%); love (39%); and courage (39%). Prudence (7%), judgment (10%) and leadership (12%) were some of the lowest ranking traits.

But there is some bad news…

When the same parents were asked to name the character strengths they thought were lacking on social media, forgiveness and self-control topped the bill on 24%, followed by honesty (21%), fairness (20%) and humility (18%).

A bleaker picture emerges when respondents were questioned about the negative character traits, or vices, they see on social media sites (“at least once a month”). The top vice is anger/hostility, reported by 60% of parents. It is followed by arrogance (51%); ignorance (43%); bad judgment (41%); and hatred (36%). Vanity, commonly perceived to be a major negative character trait in the “selfie” generation, was a relatively lowly ninth (30%) on the league table of social media vices.

In terms of the implications of these negative moral messages, when asked if social media hinders/undermines a young person’s character or moral development, 55% of respondents agreed – and one in 10 strongly agreed. These figures suggest that the influence of social media on young people is a genuine, and strong, concern for parents.

Interestingly, when conversely asked whether social media enhances/ supports a young person’s character or moral development, only 5% (or 91 out of 1738 parents) strongly agreed.

The poll suggests parents may need to pause and self-reflect before criticising the amount of time their children spend on social media. In fact, there is a medium-strong correlation between parents’ use of social networking sites and children’s use.

A third of parents (33%) are on social media for up to two hours a day – virtually the same as children (35%), according to the poll. Almost a fifth of adults (17%) admit using social networking sites up to four hours a day, compared with 22% of children.

At the extreme end, 6% of parents are on social networking sites for more than seven hours on a typical day. That compares with 8% of children.

Dr Blaire Morgan, co-principal investigator, said: “The Parent Poll is an opinion poll, not in-depth research. However, it will help to motivate the rest of our study into how social media use affects young people’s attitudes and behaviours with regards to moral values. We are particularly keen to gauge the impact of social media on young people’s experience of empathy and honesty.

“The project is due to report in November 2017 and we hope to produce evidence-based recommendations on social media use for parents and schools. The poll demonstrates a clear need for this research and highlights high levels of anxiety about the impact of social media networks on the character development of young people.

“There are some surprising findings in the poll, not the least the low level of agreement that social media can enhance or support a young person’s character or moral development. Whilst parents acknowledged that positive character strengths, including moral virtues such as love, courage and kindness, are promoted through social networking sites, they were reluctant to agree that these sites could have a positive impact on their child’s character.

“The Jubilee Centre’s ‘parents and media project’ seeks to explore the relationship between social media and virtues in more depth, and hopefully offer a more constructive outlook on how social media might impact on a person’s character and moral values. Social media is not going away, so by learning more about this relationship we should be able to maximise the benefits of social media use and avoid the pitfalls.”

[1] Parents’ knowledge of the age limit was not assessed so it is unclear as to whether parents knowingly allowed their children to use this site.

[2] Please note that the questions on character strengths/vices on social media were only asked to parents who used social media on a daily basis; this was 1598 parents in total.

[3] 24 Character Strengths – Peterson & Seligman (2004). Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification, Oxford: Oxford University Press. Definitions of these character strengths were offered for clarity.


Profile: Dr Blaire Morgan, Research Fellow, Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues

Blaire’s fascination with psychology began at school and led to her studying a BSc in Psychology at the University of Birmingham. After graduating in 2009, she subsequently completed a PhD in cognitive psychology at the University.

Blaire, originally from Alsager, Cheshire, joined the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at the University of Birmingham in 2012, where she works as a Research Fellow.

She says: “Working at the Jubilee Centre was a new challenge for me and I like the fact the research impacts on people’s lives and links with education. You can see real-world impact with the work of the Jubilee Centre and that is what drives me. I am able to work alongside, and learn from, other academics because of the Centre’s multi-disciplinary ethos. There are educationalists, philosophers, sociologists and psychologists.”

Blaire previously worked on the An Attitude for Gratitude project, which involved 10,000 participants and examined how gratitude is understood, experienced and valued in the UK. The methods from this project have recently been replicated in Australia, funded by a grant from the Society for Educational Studies; this replication has allowed for a cross-cultural comparison of gratitude.

The An Attitude for Gratitude project also led to the development of the Multi-Component Gratitude Measure, a world first, which allowed the Centre to test gratitude-related conceptions, behaviours, emotions and attitudes alongside one another.

Blaire is now working on one of the Centre’s second wave of projects, looking at the Influence of Parents and the Media. She is particularly interested in how virtue and values can be measured.

She said: “You cannot assess virtue by just looking at one dimension, such as emotions. You have to look at emotions, cognitions, attitudes and behaviours, and that viewpoint is what underpins our gratitude measure and what is informing this current study too.”

The project will look at the impact of social media on the moral character of young people and devise guidelines to be adopted by parents and schools in relation to the use of sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat. To find out more, or get involved, please visit our webpage


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