A university professor – trained as an accounting and finance professional – explains his approach to teaching business ethics and why his experience with students leaves him feeling “optimistic for the future.”

by Wade Lindenberger

I’ve spent most of my career as an accountant and financial executive. About 10 years ago, I started to reflect on my career. I was successful, but I wanted to make a more meaningful, lasting impact on the world. After some soul-searching, I decided that I could accomplish that goal by becoming a teacher. Fast forward 10 years and I’m teaching at the University of California, San Diego Rady School of Management (UCSD). Because of my accounting and finance background, I started with advanced accounting and other related courses. However, when Rady asked if I wanted to teach a course called “Personal Ethics at Work,” I jumped at the chance. You might ask Why would you want to teach ethics? That seems like a tough topic compared to accounting! Well, that’s one way to look at it, but I had a different perspective. I saw a course like “Personal Ethics at Work” as the most direct way for me to achieve that goal of creating a more meaningful, lasting impact on the world.

The Challenge of Engaging Students

After I agreed to teach the course, I began to think about how I would approach it. The UCSD catalog describes the course as intended to give students “the ethical foundation” for choices they “make every day both in the workplace and in their private lives.” The students are undergraduates, from first- to fourth-year, and they come from all types of disciplines – business, engineering, political science, etc. Most of them don’t have much, if any, real-world business experience. I think that’s an excellent group for an ethics class; they’re blank slates and they don’t have much “history” to get in the way. On the other hand, the course is required for most majors at UCSD, so students aren’t there by choice. That presented a challenge. Before I gave much thought to the structure and content of the course, I felt it was important to tackle that challenge. How was I going to interest and, more importantly, engage these students?

Depending on how it’s taught, traditional ethics can be dry and boring. It’s easy to lose students’ attention if you start talking about Aristotle and get too heavily into history and the technical aspects of ethics, especially if you use lecture as your main tool. With that in mind, I decided on a course strategy that included:

  • Focusing on the practical aspects of ethics: Students needed to learn something they could use in their day-to-day jobs.
  • Teacher as facilitator: I saw myself as a facilitator and tour guide as much as a teacher; students should teach themselves and each other as much as I teach them. One of my best tools for accomplishing this was extensive group discussion that allowed students to hear multiple points of view and learn directly from peers.
  • Scheduling guest speakers: Guest speakers provide a variety of viewpoints and experiences and give students an opportunity to ask real questions and get real answers from professionals who’ve “been there.”
  • Using multimedia: Video and music liven things up, including the occasional funny video clip to keep things light.
  • Incorporating and encouraging technology: Today’s students love electronic devices and technology, so I incorporated those elements into the course, letting students use their phones, tablets and laptops extensively to do research about the ethical standards and performance of real companies. I also implemented CourseKey, a Web-based application to conduct real-time surveys of the class and give them a chance to interact digitally.

The Employer/Employee Equation

Next, I thought about the best way to structure the course. As I tossed around this question, I considered my own experience, researched how others approached ethics courses and sought the counsel of “Personal Ethics at Work” veterans such as UCSD Professors Robert Campbell and Michael McKay. As I created my own version of the course, I operated under the basic premise that there are two important parties to the “Personal Ethics at Work” equation: the employee and the employer.

Following that premise, the first half of the course looks something like this:

  • We spend time creating and/or fine-tuning each student’s ethical definition.
  • I give students a template for developing a personal ethics navigation system.
  • We review how to identify an ethical dilemma and stakeholders and how to decide what action, if any, to take, engaging in extensive group discussion using specific ethical dilemmas from my career and other sources.
  • We watch video, including Mary Gentile’s excellent Giving Voice to Values series, which gives students practical ideas and tools to help them voice their values in real situations.

Students conclude the first half of the course by completing a project involving an ethical dilemma from their past and identifying lessons learned from that experience. (Thank you to Tricia Bertram Gallant, who directs the UCSD Academic Integrity Office, for that “autobiographical” essay idea.)

After the midterm, we continue with the second half of the course:

  • We explore how companies set ethical standards, including the key ingredients that create and sustain an ethical company like ethical tone at the top, a clearly communicated code of conduct, etc.
  • We take a deep dive into the code of conduct, in which the company sets its ethical standards.
  • Once we understand the company’s ethical framework, we research companies in class, Googling companies to find articles and other evidence of a company’s ethical performance and discussing the results in a group setting.
  • We introduce and utilize online resources like Glassdoor, Ethisphere and various websites that provide information about Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) and Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) ratings.
  • We evaluate the information we’ve gathered and, to simplify matters, rate companies on a 1 to 5 scale, with 1 being the least ethical and 5 being the most.
  • We discuss how students can effectively prepare for and participate in an interview with a potential employer and what questions to ask to further elicit information about a company’s ethical performance.

The second part of the course culminates in a project requiring students to apply their knowledge to evaluate the ethical performance of a company of their choice. At the end of the course, I provide students with a toolkit of videos and documents that they can take with them to use in the future.

Gauging the Results

Based on input I have received from my students, both directly and through UCSD’s anonymous evaluation system, the course has been well-received. Some students have even referred to it as inspirational. Of course, there are students who never move past the “I have to take this course” mindset. That’s okay. I don’t expect perfection. My main objective is to provide students with a solid foundation for navigating ethical issues in the real world.

This discussion is academic (no pun intended) if companies don’t truly care about ethics. I’ve heard that said many times, but I see too many examples of companies acting ethically for me to believe it. Besides, it’s too easy to think of companies as monoliths and judge them with an “all or nothing” ethical scale. The truth is, companies are built of individuals. No company is all good or all bad. As I say to my students, unethical acts can snowball, but so can ethical acts. If enough employees act ethically and enough companies create a culture and tone at the top that promotes ethical behavior, we will have companies that DO care about ethics and act ethically. It starts with courses like “Personal Ethics at Work.” If students see the value of what they’re learning and decide to commit to an ethical path, we have an increasingly better chance of making sure companies care about ethics and want to act ethically, because those students are our future workforce and leaders.

As one of my students put it:

My ethical path has definitely improved since the start of the course. It’s refreshing to hear someone talk about ethics. Ethics can be complicated, but what I learned from the course is that when we work our hardest to be good, happy, and genuine people, ethics becomes much simpler. Good ethical decisions become a part of our lives, because once we strive to be good, things fall into place.

“Personal Ethics at Work” is my favorite class to teach precisely because of students like that who “get it.” And that makes me optimistic for the future.

Wade Lindenberger, CPA (Inactive), MAcc teaches business and ethics courses at the University of California, San Diego. His LinkedIn profile can be accessed at https://www.linkedin.com/in/wlindenberger/ and he can be reached at wlindenberger@ucsd.edu.