In Demand: Business Ethics Courses

Back in August, the Business Roundtable, a group of CEOs and other senior leaders from 181 of the biggest companies in the United States, released a statement about what they consider “the purpose of the company.” The companies — including Apple, GM, Amazon, and Walmart — explicitly moved away from the long-held orthodoxy that a business exists to maximize returns for shareholders, instead making “a fundamental commitment to all of our stakeholders” that included dealing “fairly and ethically” with suppliers, supporting communities, and protecting the environment. Evidently, times are changing, and issues which might once have been seen as peripheral to business operations are now considered central. Are business schools well-placed to deal with the new reality?

The shift in the zeitgeist seems to have registered with prospective B-school students, at least. A recent study, Tomorrow’s Masters, by British education marketing firm Carrington Crisp and EFMD, which runs the EQUIS accreditation for business schools, found that business ethics is a subject much in demand. The researchers asked a global cohort of over 1,000 who were considering a business degree which courses interested them most, and amazingly, business ethics came fifth, behind only big data/analytics, accounting, finance, and business law, and ranking level with business forecasting/modeling. Business ethics even scored higher than economics.

This marks a dramatic and rapid change in attitudes. When the same survey was conducted in 2018, business ethics landed a lowly 18th. In similar surveys of MBA students, business ethics has generally placed a lot lower, too, rarely rising above 20th. What is going on?

“Prospective master’s students,” says Andrew Crisp, the study’s author, “are generally younger and reflect a new generation of business students with a growing interest in responsible management.”


INSEAD’s Craig Smith. File photo

Indeed, 68% of respondents to the survey were aged 22-25; in other words they have lived their formative years in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, lived through the rise of “fake news,” and in a world in which climate change is an immediate threat rather than a long-term, theoretical problem. These issues all have ethical elements.  

Of course, one survey proves nothing. On the other hand, do business schools see an increased interest in ethics from students? Do younger students, especially Generation Z, think in a radically different way to their predecessors?

Answer: Maybe.

“I have a full class for my ethics elective on the MBA program this year, a good 35 or 30% more students than I usually have,” says Craig Smith, chair in ethics and social responsibility at Paris- and Singapore-based INSEAD Business School. Andreas Rasche, professor of business in society at Copenhagen Business School’s Center for Corporate Social Responsibility, adds: “This generation, especially the younger students, are more interested in ethics, both the moral component of discussions and the managerial side.”

It would be misleading to paint all young B-school students as tree-hugging eco-warriors. An interest in ethics can be, if not exactly cynical, then certainly a recognition of corporate reality. Alfons Sauquet, a professor in the Department of People Management and Organization at Barcelona’s ESADE, says: “Students are well-informed. When a company like Nike changes its way of doing things, embracing CSR and sustainability, it is because they know there is an audience telling them they want to see this. Students are very aware of these stories, which have become far more of a typical classroom discussion.”

INSEAD’s Smith says that prospective students see “an increase in corporate political activism. We see it particularly in the States and it is partially a response to Trump, but that is not the only reason. Increasingly, employees look to their organization to speak out on social and political issues that are relevant to it.” Smart students want to understand this phenomenon.

Students are not necessarily “better” than previous generations, but have “a different set of priorities,” says ESADE’s Sauquet, who also works with EFMD. Some of the core issues they face — such as climate change or exploitative behavior in supply chains — have an ethical dimension. Also, albeit less grandly, it is “politically correct” to say that you care about ethics, Sauquet suggests. Something similar is true of schools, which have cottoned on that ethics is trendy and are keen to market their (sometimes newly-discovered) “purpose.”


So how does a potential student who is interested in ethics — for whatever reason — know whether a school teaches it well? Looking at its background can help. ESADE and IESE were both set up by values-driven religious organizations. Copenhagen Business School is suffused with the eco-friendly, equality-minded Scandinavian social-democratic ethos. INSEAD’s commitment to diversity is seen in its having campuses in Paris, Singapore, and Dubai.

The existence of a business ethics elective might suggest a serious-minded approach to the topic, but these days, says Copenhagen’s Rasche, ethics is usually addressed in CSR and sustainability courses. Marc Badia, MBA program director at Barcelona-based IESE Business School, says that a good school should address ethics “holistically” rather than in a silo. “In most cases,” he says, “the professor should bring in the ethical perspective. We try to make sure faculty realize this is not distanced from other everyday business decisions.”

Business ethics is not an “add-on” but should be deeply entwined with everything that is taught, Badia says. Done right, it goes deep. “People often think about ethics in terms of the consequences of management decisions on other people,” he says. “That is part of it, but I’d also ask, what sort of person am I becoming by doing these sorts of things? We think about moral character as well.”


Can rankings help find a school that does ethics well? Major rankings are not much use, being very focused on salary increase — which is not to say that monetary and ethical urges are incompatible. Most lists simply do not explicitly measure ethics.

At present, the Corporate Knights ranking of global schools is the best for doing so. In the most recent edition, Warwick Business School and the University of Exeter Business School (both in the UK) ranked first and second, while Schulich School of Business at York University in Toronto, Ontario, came third. Meanwhile The Financial Times is currently talking to schools, looking at ways to incorporate broadly ethical elements into its rankings, though it is unclear how they intend to quantify them. Measuring jobs created, for example, would be a weak proxy for social impact.

Accreditation can indicate that a school at least pays lip-service to ethics. To get an EQUIS accreditation schools must show a commitment to “Ethics, Responsibility & Sustainability,” but how much this influences behavior varies. “It can start a conversation,” says ESADE’s Sauquet. “Some schools take it as an opportunity to look at what they are doing in this area.” Others, presumably, less so. 

If you really want to know whether a school really walks the walk on ethical issues, there is no alternative to doing some research. IESE’s Badia says: “You can ask how many hours are spent on these sorts of issues. Also, look at the faculty’s research interests, that gives you a good sense of their focus.” Sauquet adds: “You should look at whether a school has its own sustainability plan. Do they make it public and involve stakeholders in it, and take it seriously? Also, look at their research centers.” Talking to alumni and current students is probably the best way to get a flavor of what is really going on. Looking beyond courses can be a good idea, too: guest lecturers, clubs, societies, and conferences are indicators of a school’s true ethos. 

Doing well and doing good are far from incompatible in business these days. Prospective students who want to look beyond the bottom line must find a business school that does, too. 


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