Who Needs Ethics Education?

At this year’s Academy meeting we had some interesting conversations in the Ethics Education Committee about our approach to teaching the Code. The traditional approach is to assume that our audiences need resources to help them to reflect on what is right and wrong in their professional practices. This can involve everything from from helping them to clarify their underlying values  to helping them decide whether to credit a particular author in a particular circumstance. The presumption is that people want to learn how to become, for lack of a better word, better people. They want to learn what is right. We’re certainly willing and able to provide such support, even if we often approach it by telling them what is wrong, what not to do.

But I had the opportunity to talk a few consortium organizers in the divisions this year and I got the sense that not all our audiences feel that this is the right approach. An alternative, and one for which I’ve been arguing lately every chance I get, is to educate people about what to do when they run into ethically questionable behavior in others. Sometimes it is just that: merely “questionable”, and when the questions are answered everything turns out to be fine. But sometimes there is a need to take action, either to protect yourself from harm or to mitigate the harm that may have been done to someone else. Even when you’re blameless, you need ethics to help guide you towards a constructive resolution of the conflict.

That’s why we’ve been working to incorporate a sense of the various processes and procedures within the Academy of Management in our educational initiatives. In a sense, we want to shift the focus from the “bad guys”, who need to be told what not to do, to the “good guys”, who need to be told what can be done when bad things happen. And it’s even more hopeful than that, in fact. Sometimes, a robustly ethical perspective can give us the hope we need to discover that an apparent wrong was actually not as harmful as we thought, perhaps not a wrong at all.

Let me offer a simple example. One topic that came up a few times was the increasing problem of “coercive citation”. This is the practice of requiring someone to cite your favorite paper (perhaps even one you’ve written yourself) before you’ll publish them. Such power can be exerted by both editors and reviewers, though most of the focus these days is on the editors who do it to boost their impact factors. Now, on the traditional approach we’d try to encourage editors not to be coercive in this way. But do we really think that the Ethics Education Committee will reach the hearts and minds of senior scholars who have become editors of important journals? I’m not very hopeful about this at all.

Instead, therefore, we can try to instruct authors in how to interpret and respond to what appears to be an attempt to coerce a citation. The first rule would be to assume good faith. At first pass, a suggested citation is just that: a suggestion to read a particular paper because including it may strengthen your own. The problem arises after you read it and deem it to be either deeply flawed or simply irrelevant to your aims. At this point, a cynical author might decide to cite the paper anyway, on the understanding that it is required for publication. But a less cynical one–one that has been ethically educated, let’s say–might simply thank the editor or the reviewer for the suggestion and explain that the paper is not, in the author’s judgment, appropriate to include. If the suggestion was indeed intended to be coercive, it just ran into an obstacle (and then we can talk about what might happen next), but if it wasn’t, it would have been tragic to let it harm the quality of the original argument and corrupt the author’s integrity.

I think this sort of instruction in what our options are when something appears to be amiss but might not actually be is too often left out of ethics education. Ethics education is not really for bad people who need to become better. It’s for good people who need strategies and support for maintaining their goodness in the face all sorts of mixed signals and strange incentives. Ethics education is about telling people that there is a community in place to support their attempts to be good, not a surveillance state to thwart their attempts to cheat. In this way, ethics education might even be edifying.

2 thoughts on “Who Needs Ethics Education?”

  1. Thomas, you’ve offered good food for thought! Your suggestion about offering ways to explore an apparent problem before reacting is an excellent one. Especially in our digitally-connected world, intentions behind an online comment or email can be misread. By asking for clarification we may also give the other party time to reflect and perhaps reconsider the action in question.

    While, as you note, entrenched senior individuals may not change their behavior based on a workshop—it is possible that those who set policies for acceptable practices may rethink their institution’s or department’s guidelines or requirements when they see that certain behaviors are likely to draw unwanted negative attention. In this era of transparency via viral posts, bad behaviors can quickly become the basis for public discussion.

    My thoughts are that we need to choose the best content and approach depending on whether we are offering “ethics education” for AOM members, our students, academics or other professionals. As educators in this field we need to keep learning and create the space for conversation about the dilemmas we face and strategies to address them. Let’s hope The Ethicist is such a space!

  2. Two important things come to mind regarding your discussion. First, it seems to me that it is unlikely that we are talking about a ‘this or that’ approach. Ideally, opinion is grounded in data, but that is something we lack. Organizers often change every year or two, and even the long term organizers may not have any systematic way of knowing the effectiveness of different approaches. It would be their ‘hunch’. Most likely, the best programs will utilize a combination of different approaches to suit the tastes of a heterogeneous audience – although providing an alternative ‘slate’ for organizers to select from might be another approach.
    Secondly, I think we need to find out not only what people want to learn, but also how they are best able to learn. I guess that would be a real ‘impact factor’! Thus, we should seriously consider researching our outcomes. Of course, the real evidence is in behavior – and trying to figure out those outcomes will be tricky indeed! Perhaps there is some research that we can examine that can inform us as we develop these ideas.

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