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Are MBA students as ethically challenged as some research has suggested? Not by a long shot, according to this new survey

October 1, 2006

For more information, contact: Benjamin Haimowitz, HHaimowitz@aol.com

With the corporate scandals of recent years exposing severe moral and ethical transgressions at the highest levels of the corporate world, business schools have come under fire for failing to instill adequate ethical standards in students, while questions have been raised as well about the character of the students themselves. Several studies, for example, have found that business students cheat more than other students or are less concerned about economic and social justice.

Given this background, a survey of more than 2,000 MBA students conducted within the past month gives cause for encouragement.

The survey suggests that the overwhelming majority of today's MBA students believe that businesses should work toward the betterment of society, that managers should take into account social and environmental impacts when making business decisions, and that corporate social responsibility should be integrated into core curriculum classes in MBA programs.

Initial results of the survey will be reported Tuesday, October 24, by Liz Maw, executive director of the organization Net Impact, at the UN - Academy of Management - Case Western Reserve Global Forum in Cleveland. Net Impact is an international network of MBAs, graduate students and professionals committed to using the power of business to improve the world. The survey results will also be available at the annual Net Impact conference, Oct. 27-29 in Chicago and Evanston, Illinois.

"While we don't have earlier results for comparison, it may be that these responses reflect, at least in part, the extensive coverage of the corporate scandals of the recent past and the trials of the top executives implicated in them," Ms. Maw surmises. "It would hardly be surprising for such ethical disasters to enhance students' appreciation of corporate social responsibility."

Coincidentally, a scholarly report presented at the meeting suggests the considerable impact events like Enron's collapse and Martha Stewart's involvement in the Imclone scandal can have on ethical attitudes. By a stroke of luck, the research, by Stephen J. Conroy of San Diego University and Tisha L. N. Emerson of Baylor University, was launched before these scandals came to light, which provided a special opportunity to gauge their impact.

Conroy and Emerson surveyed groups of students at two universities, about 1500 in all, at three times between June 2001 (before the two scandals broke) and December 2002 (after they had received heavy coverage in the media). Students were asked to read 25 brief fictional vignettes, two of which involved practices similar to those in the scandals (that is, accounting tricks and insider trading) and were asked to rate the practices on a scale of 1 (never acceptable) to 7 (always acceptable). As the scandals progressed, the degree of acceptability of both practices declined significantly.

The much more recent Net Impact survey was conducted online from September 25 to October 15 this year at 110 MBA programs in the US and Canada. A total of 2,112 students from 87 programs, 70% of whom were in the first year and 30% in the second, responded to 31 questions. Forty-five percent of the respondents were female, and 34% were people of color. Thirty-seven percent were members of Net Impact, whose membership exceeds 10,000 worldwide.

Among the findings:

-- Eighty-one percent agreed with a statement that businesses should work toward the betterment of society, although only 18% believed most corporations are currently working toward that goal.

-- Seventy-eight percent agreed that the subject of corporate social responsibility should be integrated into the MBA core curriculum, and 60% said they believed CSR makes good business sense and leads to profits.

-- Seventy-nine percent indicated they would seek employment that is socially responsible in the course of their careers, and 59% said they would do so immediately following business school.

-- Eighty-nine percent said business professionals should take social and environmental impacts into account when making business decisions.

While the 37% of the respondents who were Net Impact members were the most likely to be partial to social responsibility, social commitment proved strong even among the 63% who were nonmembers. Thus, among respondents who said they were not interested in becoming Net Impact members, 81% believed business professionals should take into account social and environmental impacts when making decisions; 64% said the subject of corporate social responsibility should be integrated into core MBA classes; 66% said business should work toward the betterment of society; and 60% said they would seek socially responsible employment.

The Net Impact survey will be presented as part of a three-day global forum in Cleveland from Oct. 22nd to 25th. Called "Business as an Agent of World Benefit" (BAWB), the meeting will witness a marked increase in participation of management scholars in the UN Global Compact, the initiative that Kofi Annan launched six years ago to promote greater commitment to social and economic goals by business worldwide. The Academy of Management, the world's largest scholarly organization devoted to management research and teaching, is cosponsoring the forum in cooperation with the UN and Case Western Reserve University.

Media Coverage:
Bloomberg Press Service. Students Say Business Schools Must Teach Social Responsibility. (Tuesday, October 24, 2006).
Chronicle of Higher Education. Most MBA students believe companies should help improve society, study finds. (Friday, November 03, 2006).

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