MBA Students Learn To Negotiate Ethical Dilemmas With Improv

Business people sitting around table with words "business ethics"

University business programs are refocusing on the importance of ethics–in the classroom and in business.
Image: Shutterstock

In the traditional business school curriculum, the study of ethics occurs at the beginning of the Masters in Business Administration program. Students take this course before the core disciplines of accounting, marketing, and statistics. This practice appears to suggest that the study of ethics for business students is forgettable, not foundational.

Enron’s Ken Lay was a businessman with a great education and not an iota of ethical intent when it came to doing business. Business school students must have role models and training combined to ensure that they’ll develop and practice honorable methods of doing business.

Fortunately, schools like the University of Virginia’s School of Commerce have graduates active in the business community who have engaged their alma mater’s ethical culture. Robbert Vorhoff, Principal at General Atlantic, is a graduate of the University of Virginia, a school that values ethical business practices and trains their students with innovative programs that address actual dilemmas and provide strategies that work in the real world.

One of the problems encountered by students in business school programs is that sometimes their education forgoes the study of people when it comes to business. Many programs encourage their students to study the impact of numbers and data without the presence of human beings. Money has an impact on our culture as well as our collective finances. Ethical business students are taught to recognize that the impact on the life of human beings is an integral part of doing good business.

The problem with educating students about business ethics is the difference between the classroom and real life. Students don’t expect actually to meet a person doing wrong at the company where they’re working; so when they do, they’re at a loss.

Cady Garey, a drama professor at the University of Virginia, uses improv classes to teach students from the UV McIntire School of Commerce to respond in an authentic manner when confronted with a difficult ethical dilemma. The students in these classes are presented with problems they’ll encounter in the real world. They’re taught that not every person is a Mother Teresa–or a Bernie Madoff.

“We do not position ethics as a stand-alone concept, isolated from the rest of the curriculum,” said Darden Professor Andrew Wicks, who directs Darden’s Olsson Center for Applied Ethics. “We push students to think about the moral dimensions of the choices they make and develop a larger framework for making those choices.”

Learn more about how business students prepare to deal with ethical dilemmas here.


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