Do you think you have strong business ethics? If you're like most people, you probably think you do.

But have you ever been put to the test?

Have you caught your boss telling a lie?

Found a discrepancy in the books of your biggest client?

Overheard an associate promise a service your firm couldn't possibly deliver?

Saint Leo University Assistant Professor Joe Little, who teaches ethics as part of a course in business law, says it's not what you learn in the classroom that determines your ethics; it's what you do when confronted with a decision.

"Ethics depends on what you choose to do," he says.

Ethics purposely integrated

At Saint Leos' Donald R. Tapia School of Business, ethics is such an important topic it's purposely integrated into every course offered through both on-ground and online business degree programs. In fact, ethics is part of the core curriculum across all disciplines and integrity – in word and deed – is one of the university's core values.

"Saint Leo takes it to the nth degree," says Little, a practicing attorney for more than 20 years. "We really emphasize, particularly with professionals, that your actions and reputation will follow you."

Little takes a theoretical approach to the study of business ethics. His lessons, including those aimed at students earning an online business degree, focus on three main theories as a framework for judging right or wrong decisions.

One theory is that a corporation's job is to make money, and as long as the corporation is not deceptive, it has a responsibility to make as much money as it can. This theory, attributed to American economist Milton Friedman, is known as the moral minimum theory, is "absolutely not in vogue anymore," according to Little.

Another – which says that every action should be judged based on how it would sound to others if it appeared on the front page of the newspaper – is a "prescription for doing the right thing," says Little. Known as the transparency theory, it is attributed to American business magnate Warren Buffett.

Taking into consideration the concerns of any parties that can be affected by a decision, including employees, the community and customers, as well as investors, is the premise for the third theory – the stakeholder theory.

We talked with Little about ethics and education, and here's what he had to say.

Why are ethics so important in business today?

Little: It's a landmine for new graduates. New graduates hired by companies often are put in a difficult position. They have to understand a bad decision will follow them long term. The quicker they learn that the better they'll be.

Isn't ethics purely a matter of character?

Little: No; ethics is a matter of agency. Every person is a moral agent. Ethics depends on what you choose to do.

Can a business really be successful and ethical?

Little: Yes it can. I think there's a myth that in order to be successful you have to be ruthless. That's short-term thinking. Long-term thinking takes other things into consideration, like your reputation – that it will catch up with you.

How did you become an ethics educator?

Little: I studied philosophy as an undergraduate and ethics is a fundamental aspect of philosophy. As a professor at Saint Leo, ethics is incorporated in every class I teach.

Is teaching ethics something new?

Little: Every modern business textbook today has chapters on ethics – it's built in. Sometimes the topic is concrete, such as in the field of law, where professionals are held accountable to a code of ethics.

How do you teach a person business ethics?

Little: It has to be directed at an action. A student has to be confronted with a decision to be made for it to make sense. For example: What does a junior accounting fraud investigator do when he becomes aware that a senior partner has juggled the numbers? With a question, the student becomes the moral agent. I don't think you can teach it any other way.

Can you give some examples of ethical dilemmas in business?

Little: One example is when a forensic accountant becomes aware of bad numbers. The accountant has a moral obligation to track it down – whether it's a firm the accountant is auditing or the accountant's own firm. You can't turn a blind eye.

In marketing, as another example, there's a fine line between bolstering a product and being deceitful. We teach students that being deceitful will definitely come back to haunt them.

How does Saint Leo integrate ethics into its online business curriculum?

Little: All exercises or projects always have an ethical aspect as part of the evaluation. Also, internships are monitored very closely and students are asked directly if they had to make a tough choice, and if they did how they dealt with it.

Ethics is purposely integrated throughout the core curriculum. You can't teach ethics in the abstract; you have to flesh it out and have situations to apply it to.

How does the emphasis on ethics in Saint Leo's School of Business reflect the university's core values?

Little: It's unavoidable. Anyone who walks into the School of Business will see the university's core values displayed in the lobby, and companies offering internships are told up front that this is what we try to foster.

Are there examples you use with your students of particularly unscrupulous companies?

Little: We certainly discuss some of the major travesties, such as Enron and Worldcom. We talk about huge companies and show how destructive ethics violations can be, affecting hundreds of people. We also use case studies, down to the smallest business entity – even sole proprietors – showing that if you are deceptive, eventually youcan't outrun that.

Are you seeing a shift in the market and in the attitudes of students with regard to ethics?

Little: Yes; there is more accountability today. Now all high corporate officers have to sign off on financials. I think changes in the law have really mandated these business students know if they don't act appropriately there will be consequences.

Do you agree that business ethics are more important than ever in today's environment? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

Other posts you may be interested in reading:

Why Developing A Good Work Ethic Is Essential To Career Success

How To Develop A Good Work Ethic In 5 Easy Steps

What Makes A Great Manager?

Bright Future For Business Management Grads

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