Ethical conduct in the workplace has become increasingly important to students at leading business schools, according to a new survey, but students are worried that their study programs might teach questionable values that may later contribute to misman-agement or corporate fraud.
The study, commissioned by the Aspen Institute, a nonprofit organization in Aspen, Colorado, that does widely noted research on business issues, polled 1,693 students last November at a dozen leading schools offering master's degrees in business administration.
Participants included Columbia Business School, Yale School of Management, the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania and London Business School. Harvard Business School did not take part in the poll.
In what appears to be a shift in attitude, the study found that 73.9 percent of respondents considered meeting customers' needs to be the No. 1 priority of a company. In second place was maximizing shareholder value, cited by 70.6 percent of those polled.
By contrast, a similar Aspen Institute study done in February through April 2001 found that MBA students considered increasing shareholder value to be a company's primary task (cited by 75 percent of respondents), ahead of meeting customer needs (71.1 percent).
That the 2001 poll did not survey the same students does not affect the validity of the comparison, said Nancy McGaw, the deputy director of the institute's Business and Society Program in New York.
"It appears to us from the data that students are now more interested in values-based decision-making," McGaw said on Monday in a telephone interview.
She said the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, the declining economy, the conflict-of-interest scandals on Wall Street and accounting and management fraud at companies like Enron, Tyco and WorldCom have all been factors in the increased interest in responsible behavior by executives toward investors, employees, the environment and the community.
The study, titled Where Will They Lead? MBA Student Attitudes About Business & Society 2003, was done for the institute via the Internet by Universum Communications, a consulting and communications company based in Stockholm that specializes in surveys of corporations and graduate students. The institute expected to release the results of the study yesterday.
Despite a perception among MBA students that ethics and values are increasingly important in the workplace, only 22 percent of respondents said their schools were doing "a lot" to prepare them to handle workplace conflicts involving mismanagement or fraud.
"There could have been even more emphasis at Wharton on ethics and social responsibility," said Jordan Silvergleid, 33, who graduated from Wharton on Sunday and has gotten a job at the Advisory Board, a health care consulting company based in Washington.
One in five respondents did not feel they were receiving any ethics training. About half said the messages and priorities taught in MBA programs might have contributed to the recent scandals. The 2001 study did not provide any comparable data.
"The priorities taught in business schools affect the way students think," said Carolyn Woo, dean of the Mendoza College of Business at the University of Notre Dame, which participated in the latest survey. "Professors need to use more human language."