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Ethics Education Needs to Evolve

Acting on Ethical Values the Key to Making Ethical Decisions

Ethics education fails in its objective of teaching the skills necessary to make ethical decisions when it does not go far enough. The reality is in workplace situations there is a difference between knowing what the right thing to do is and doing it!

Traditional ethics education focuses on the why but not the how. We teach students about philosophical reasoning methods such as Kantian ethics and Utilitarianism, but we fail to teach them an effective way to voice their values in a way that makes a difference.

Ethical decision making entails anticipating the likely push back one may receive in the workplace when trying to operationalize the decisions which have been made. For example, my boss may expect me to go along with false financial statements; I should know that violates ethical principles by ignoring the rights of the users of the statements; but the pressure imposed on me can prevent me from acting on my beliefs.

A Pathway to Ethical Action

Ethical action requires following a game plan such as the following:

  1. Who are the stakeholders potentially affected by my decisions and actions?

  2. What do I owe to them in my role as an accountant or auditor (professional obligations)?

  3. What are the ethical issues in this situation (ethical reasoning)?

  4. Based on my analysis, what is the most ethical decision to make (ethical decision making)?

  5. How can I most effectively act on my values? Here, a “Giving Voice to Values” technique should be followed:

  • Who should I speak to for support?

  • What should I say to convince them that my position is the most ethical one?

  • How will I respond to the reasons and rationalizations I am likely to hear from my superiors?

  • It is standard practice around here to follow orders; be a team player

  • A loyalty obligation exists to management and the company

  • This is a one-time request

6. What else do I need to do to support acting on my values?

Challenges of Ethical Decision-Making

Ethical decision-making is fraught with danger. Those facing ethical dilemmas oftentimes fear for their jobs if they go against their superiors. Bringing bad news to top management may lead to the phenomenon of “killing the messenger.” Still, it is better to act now and not delay when an ethical crisis exists to ensure you won’t be blamed I if the situation blows up in the future.

Organizations that take ethics seriously should develop systems to support whistle-blowers as follows:

  • Have in place an effective corporate governance system including an independent board of directors, strong and effective internal controls, and an ethical culture

  • Establish a hot line that employees can use to bring matters of concern to top management in an anonymous way

  • Appoint someone to be the vice president of ethics and compliance to handle all matters pertaining to the ethics code and regulatory requirements.

Teaching Ethics to College Students

I explain ethics to my students by using easy-to-remember phrases. Here are a few:

  • Ethics is all about what you do when no one is looking

  • Resolving ethical dilemmas is less a goal than following a pathway (Rushworth Kidder)

  • One’s character is revealed by the choices made over time and under pressure (Robert McKee)

  • Have the courage to say no (W. Clement Stone)

  • Good actions give strength to ourselves and inspire good actions in others (Plato)

  • Avoid the ethical slippery slope

Teaching ethics to Millennials is particularly challenging because I find they are more driven by self-interest and entitlement than previous generations. On the other hand, they do want to work for organizations that value their work and their contributions. The key is to engage them in the decision-making process and reward them when they achieve their goals.

Finally, teaching ethics effectively requires an ability to inspire others by our words and actions. We are role models for our students. We must “walk the talk” of ethics in our dealings with them.

To quote Henry Adams: “A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.”

Blog posted by Steven Mintz on May 3, 2016. Dr. Mintz is a professor in the Orfalea College of Business at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. He also blogs at

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