Diversity and Democracy

Business Ethics in Undergraduate Education

One component of personal and social responsibility that has received ample attention over the past decade is the question of ethical reasoning, particularly as it is manifested (or not) in the business world. Colleges and universities can play a key role in preparing future business leaders for their ethical responsibilities in the workplace, but much remains to be accomplished on that front. Several recent studies have shed light on the ethical preparation of business students in particular, providing insight into how higher education might better prepare students for responsible action in an interdependent economy.

Students' Perceptions of Business Ethics

A study published recently in Business Education Digest (Keith, Perreault, and Chin 2009) explores students' perceptions of how prevalent and consequential ethical questions are in the business world. Surveys of business students at a midwestern university revealed that while 83 percent of students either "agree" or "strongly agree" that "situations where ethics may be called into question are frequently encountered in business," students underrate the ethical consequence of several potential conflicts.

Students were particularly likely to indicate that "no action" was necessary in hypothetical cases of employee conflict of interest (such as granting contracts to family members, where 38 percent of students thought no action was necessary). In contrast, students judged misrepresentation of qualifications on a résumé as deserving of harsher penalties (with 32 percent saying this called for dismissal). As the researchers note, "the findings reaffirm the need for university-level ethics education for business students" (9).

Religious Education and Business Ethics

In an article recently published in Contemporary Issues in Education Research, Charles Comegys probes the possible connections between students' beliefs about business ethics and their exposure to discussions of religion and ethics, either through their coursework or via their institutional context (2010). Comegys administered the Attitudes Toward Business Ethics Questionnaire to students at six institutions in the Northwest, two of which were religiously affiliated.

Comegys found evidence that both business students and non-business students at secular institutions expressed stronger agreement with unethical statements about business than their peers at religiously affiliated institutes (which may be a result of self-selection, as the author notes). He also found that business students who had taken ethics courses displayed more disagreement with unethical statements, while the same was true of non-business students who had taken religious studies courses. Comegys concludes that "ethical education and institutional climate may play a role in effectively shaping students' attitudes about business ethics" (41).

Gender and Business Ethics

In a second study on students' perceptions of business ethics, Keith, Perrault, and Chin (now joined by Megan Keith) explored whether a correlation exists between student gender and ethical beliefs (2009). A survey distributed to business students at a midwestern university revealed that female students' views about ethics tend to diverge from those of their male peers in several significant ways.

The researchers focused their gender-disaggregated data on three categories: perceptions about "the need for congruence between corporate and personal ethics," beliefs about "whether success in business depends on ethical behavior," and perceptions about "which types of workplace misconduct deserve the most severe managerial disciplinary actions" (134-5). In the first and second categories, they found that women were more likely than men to believe that personal ethics and corporate behaviors should align and that ethics are essential to success. In the third category, however, women and men shared similar and relatively lax beliefs about what kinds of disciplinary action are appropriate, reinforcing the researchers' beliefs that more ethics education is necessary for business students.


Comegys, Charles. 2010. "The Impact of Religiously Affiliated Universities and Courses in Ethics and Religious Studies on Students' Attitude toward Business Ethics." Contemporary Issues in Education Research 3 (6): 35-44.

Keith, Nancy K., Heidi R. Perreault, and Mary Chin. 2009. "Business Employee Ethical Misconduct and Managerial Disciplinary Actions: A Business Student Perspective." Business Education Digest 18.

Keith, Nancy K., Heidi R. Perreault, Mary Chin, and Megan Keith. 2009. "The Effect of Gender on the Importance of Business Ethics and Managerial Decisions: A Student Perspective." Delta Pi Epsilon Journal 51 (3): 125-136.

Kathryn Peltier Campbell is editor of Diversity & Democracy.


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