Thursday, May 26, 2016

For the past several years, I've been developing a Business Ethics class for my students here at my university. Now that I'm leaving this university for another job, I hate to see all that work go to waste. The vast majority of Business Ethics classes are, not to put too fine a point on it, useless for Chinese students (if not for others, as well). Since they were unable to find anyone with an actual ethics background, the department roped in a Finance guy from outside the university to teach the class. I'm sure he'll do his best, but I know what it's like teaching a subject that's so far outside your wheelhouse. Disaster is guaranteed, even with the best of intentions.
I've been working to convert all my course materials into a detailed handbook, so that he can follow my outline and use my readings and PowerPoint slides. I've been assured that my materials will be used only with my © intact, though I'm not sure how carefully that will be policed. (However, there is method to my madness: by incentivizing them to stick with my course outline I maximize the chance that in a year or two when I publish the course as a textbook, it will be a natural fit for them to adopt it. :-) )
Going back through these course materials has been a great pleasure. It's one thing to go through a course one week at a time, but it's been a couple of years since I've really taken a view of it from 30,000 feet to take in the whole. Of course there are a thousand ways I can improve it (and am doing so in my Course Notes), but still I'm pretty proud of the results.
Key concepts for teaching Business Ethics to Chinese students:
1. Absolutely no theoretical/philosophical discussion, except as directly induced from concretes. No section on Utilitarianism or Kantianism or Aristotle. I tried that my first year, and there are no words for the level of failure. 351 people hated life that week: 350 of them being my students and the last one being their errant professor. I rejiggered that introduction to ethical theory five different times for five different classes, and it went "THUD" every time.
2. Keep all controversies within their context. That whole section on Affirmative Action and race relations in our Western textbook is completely useless here.
3. Include a balance of Chinese and foreign case studies. However, every negative case study about China must be balanced by one from outside China. Don't do anything to convey the notion that you, the foreigner, are here in China to tell them what's wrong with their country.
4. Include one or two important controversies. A section on sexual harassment is extremely important, because the female students haven't any idea how rampant it is, and the male students haven't any idea how wrong it is. The row of guys sitting in the back of the room will try to smirk their way through that lesson, because of the one-child policy: they don't have a sister.
If you happen to be teaching in a year when anti-Japanese hatred is on the flare, get in their faces on that one. I have a great lesson plan for that, but this year it was mostly a waste because my students didn't take the anti-Japanese bait.
5. Limit controversy. In an 18-week semester, 2 or 3 controversial topics is about as much as you can hit them with. More than that, and they'll turn on you. It's not their fault, either, it's yours: too much controversy, in this culture, is seen as another foreign invasion.
6. Learn the lesson of The Meno. Socrates argued (more or less) that virtue cannot be taught, and he was (more or less) right. Ethics is a matter of choice, and it's for the individual to make in his or her own mind. So what can a Business Ethics class teach?
  • The real-world importance of ethics. Case studies of companies that have failed because they lost their morals.
  • That business is not inherently unethical — in fact, ethics is good business practice.
  • How and why people with good intentions fail at ethical behavior.
  • Practical guidance: how to create an organization with incentives to ethical behavior, and disincentives to unethical behavior.
For Chinese students, in my opinion that's about it. If you can do that, then you have given them a good framework for thinking about ethics in business. You've given them a warning about the consequences of unethicality. You've given them a heads-up on what leads people astray, and how to avoid those mistakes that magnify over time. You've given them management Best Practices.

They will go home knowing that they got something really great from your class.

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