Want an Ethical Management Team? Hire a Convict

Giving employees the tools to guide them through making an ethical decision, and teaching them how to use ethical principles to defend their actions in such a way as to show that this action was the "right" action, is a much better use of resources.
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Suppose for a moment that you are recruiting new management trainees for your company. One of your candidates is a recent graduate of a top business school with the ink still wet on her MBA diploma. Another is a recently released ex-convict with the ink still wet on his parole. Who should you hire?

Study shows convicts have higher ethical standards than MBAs

If you are looking for someone with high ethical standards, a sense of loyalty, and a desire to put the customer first, you should probably pick the ex-con over the MBA. It turns out that convicts have higher ethical standards than business school graduates in many situations. So, if your company is stressing ethical behavior, a convicted felon may be a better choice than an MBA. That may seem shocking, but a study confirms it.

Several years ago, Ball State University compared the ethical values of convicted felons to those of MBA students, and some interesting findings came to light. Although the prison inmates and MBAs scored fairly evenly in many categories, the survey found that:

  • Convicts valued loyalty and group trust more than the MBAs valued those characteristics.
  • While MBA students put the interests of the stockholders first, convicts put the needs of the customers first.
  • 73 percent of the MBA students said they would hire a competitor's employees who had knowledge of a profitable discovery while only 59 percent of the convicts said they would do so.

While the big scandals receive all of the publicity, the statistics show that smaller amounts of fraud are rampant among managers. A different survey found that 85% of corporate fraud was committed by employees, but most shocking was the fact that 55% of the fraud came from management. Of those managers who committed fraud, 85% were new managers who had been in their jobs for less than a year. Clearly, business school graduates and others who are entering management are responsible for much of the fraud taking place in corporations today. We must ask ourselves why this epidemic of management-based fraud is so widespread.

I've seen this firsthand

As a professor who taught thousands of prospective MBAs, I can personally attest to this phenomenon. The most alarming thing is that out all of the classes that I taught, the greatest amount of cheating and plagiarism took place in my ethics classes. Perhaps there is some ironic message here that I haven't yet been able to decipher.

Why are we faced with this situation?

Is it because ethics can't be taught? Even The Wall Street Journal once bemoaned in an editorial the proposition that ethics courses in school are a waste of time since ethics isn't something that can be taught. You either have it or you don't. But if ethics is knowing what we should do in a given situation, then why can't we teach people the skills they need to make the morally correct decision?

I think we can. Although I don't believe you can make a corrupt person ethical, I do believe you can teach employees how to make an ethical decision. There is a difference. Companies need to provide training on how to make an ethically defensible decision. I say "defensible" because two people can look at the same issue and come to different conclusions, with each believing their decision to be completely ethical. This is because ethical dilemmas today are more ambiguous than they used to be. Things are no longer black and white.

Right vs. Wrong

Ambiguity can be found in our inability to distinguish between competing interests. As human beings with various values and differing notions about what is right and what is wrong, we are often faced with some really tough choices. Those choices often involve right vs. right. They are tough because they involve choices where either alternative is based on one of our deeply rooted beliefs. Here is one example an employee might face:

Truth vs. Loyalty

We are often placed in situations where we possess some facts that, if revealed, could harm someone to whom we feel some loyalty. For example, we may know about some improper conduct or crucial mistakes made by our boss, but because we have worked for him for years and feel some loyalty toward him, we are conflicted. If the president of the company asks us if we know who is responsible for the problems, we are torn between our value of honesty, which requires us to provide the information, and our loyalty to our boss, which requires us not to cause him any harm. We can either tell or not tell on our boss, but we cannot do both. Therefore we must choose between what appears to be two "right" courses of action.

Two employees put into this situation can come up with opposing "right" courses of action. So who is correct, ethically? The answer is: the employee who makes the best argument for his actions. It is possible to teach people how to use solid ethical principles to defend their actions in such a way that they can justify (or defend) those actions. Over the years, I have seen employees articulate a great argument for their behavior using some sound ethical principles to bolster their case.

The bottom line is that focusing on trying to teach people how to be ethical is probably a waste of your company's time and money. You can't teach a person to "be" something they aren't. However, giving employees the tools to guide them through making an ethical decision, and teaching them how to use ethical principles to defend their actions in such a way as to show that this action was the "right" action, is a much better use of resources.

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