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  • 1. Communicating about Ethics in Classroom and Training Situations: Special Issues Related to Multicultural Audiences Judith A. Kolb, Dee Frisque, Hong Lin, & Allen Bonsell Pennsylvania State University Abstract The focus of this article is on issues related to ethics teaching and training in situations in which participants are from varying cultural backgrounds. After a review of relevant literature, we describe our personal experiences with two different ethics-related courses. Literature review Universities and corporations that address ethics training today often face new challenges due to the changing demographics in the work environment. Not too long ago, ethics training was taught predominately to students in the disciplines of medicine, business, and law (Davis, 1999). These students were most likely white males from middle class families who shared similar moral values. Today, college campuses are multicultural and include students from different races, cultures, and ethnic backgrounds. The American workforce has encountered similar effects with the increased attention to diversity efforts (Odenwald, 1993; Thomas, 1991). Meanwhile, 45 percent of American corporate revenues are generated outside the U.S. (GMAC Global Relocation Services, National Foreign Trade Council & SHRM Global Forum, 2003). Business is borderless, especially with today’s technological advances. Corporations and institutions of higher learning are finding that ethics training is necessary in a global economy if professionals are expected to appreciate a broad range of ethical behaviors. As universities and corporations respond to the needs of domestic and international clients, there seems to be a problem with transferring ethics training from the rhetoric level to the reality level as identified by William Bennett, Secretary of U.S. Education (George, 1987). In a talk given to business school administrators, Secretary Bennett discussed the gap between rhetoric and the reality of ethics training that exists in higher education. He argued two main points. The first point is that ethics training should be value driven. The second point is that ethics training does little to prepare students for the realities of working in an increasingly global and competitive work environment. If universities hope to generate future leaders, filling this gap is imperative. In response to the demographic changes of their student bodies, institutions of higher learning are beginning to look at comprehensive ethics programs that integrate the shared beliefs and value systems of students on their campuses (Guelcher & Cahalane, 1999). Similarly, as faculty incorporate discussions about ethics in their curriculum, they consider the diversity of the student Proceedings of the 2003 Association for Business Communication Annual Convention. Copyright ©2003, Association for Business Communication 1
  • 2. body when making choices about how to approach this subject. Kolb (2003) used the analysis of hypothetical ethical situations or vignettes in classroom training with U.S. and international graduate students. She chose an issues and options approach for discussion because this approach “allows for cultural differences in appropriate norms of behavior and encourages students to consider and discuss ethical issues and possible ramifications of behavioral choices” (p. 70). Dr. Nancy Tuana, Professor and Director, Rock Ethics Institute at Pennsylvania State University, used vignettes in a similar fashion in a graduate student seminar presentation, “Moral Literacy in the Workplace and Beyond” (Spring, 2002). In this presentation, moral literacy was defined as the ability to recognize moral problems and evaluate the complex issues that they raise from many perspectives. The use of hypothetical situations in ethics teaching and/or research has also been reported (Moon & Woolliams, 2000; Sanyal, 2000; Wilson, 2003). As university campuses and classrooms become multicultural, faculty may find teaching ethics in a culturally-mixed class difficult (Cowton & Dunfee, 1995). In a telephone survey with more than 40 faculty from the United Kingdom, Asia, and North America, Cowton and Dunfee (1995) found that over half the faculty surveyed indicated that less than 10 percent of their ethics teaching focused on global issues. Many teachers found their students “to be insufficiently attuned to the international diversity of cultures and values” (Cowton & Dunfee, 1995, p. 334). On the contrary, however, some teachers found their students “relativistic and tended to deny any objective approaches to business ethics” (p. 334). Thus, although students from culturally varied regions and countries are groomed with similar teaching methods and Western textbooks are widely used in business teaching (Ahmed, Chung, & Eichenseher, 2003; Cowton & Dunfee, 1995), culture is still a fundamental determinant for students’ ethical decision-making (Lu, Rose, & Blodgett, 1999). A survey of undergraduate students in three states found that culture of a particular region was a significant variable in shaping a student’s values and ethics (Spain, Brewer, Brewer, & Garner, 2002). In another survey of business students from six countries, including the U.S., all groups had basic agreement on what constitutes ethical business practices, but respondents from different cultures had significant differences in tolerance to unethical behavior and its potential harm (Ahmed, Chung, & Eichenseher, 2003). Although students from different cultures may bring with them differing interpretations of ethical behavior, there exists a great debate, but little consensus, regarding whether faculty should focus their teaching objectives on relativistic values or universalistic values. Cowton and Dunfee (1995) found that faculty appear to be relying highly upon personalized teaching objectives. For those faculty who want to sensitize students to ethical issues through a focus on specific examples and business context, “students are encouraged to see cultural differences and to learn ways to manage important cultural distinctions” (Cowton & Dunfee, 1991, p. 333). Alternatively, for those who want to emphasize broad cultural or moral norms, students are encouraged to “learn how to apply universal values such as freedom and fairness,” and “develop an understanding of universal principles” (p. 333). Proceedings of the 2003 Association for Business Communication Annual Convention. Copyright ©2003, Association for Business Communication 2
  • 3. While both relativistic and universalistic elements could be present in ethics courses in a culturally mixed class, cultural relativism seems more dominant. According to a poll that surveyed a random sample of 2002 graduating American college seniors, three quarters of them reported they were taught that right and wrong depends on differences in individual values and cultural diversity. Only about a quarter reported they were taught in the traditional view that everyone should be judged by clear and uniform standards of right and wrong (National Association of Scholars/Zogby International, 2002). The poll has caused disturbed feelings among those who suggest that “colleges and universities are contributing to, and perpetuating, the ethical laxness behind the recent scandals at Enron, WorldCom, and other major American firms” (Colson, 2002, p. 1). Personal experience All authors are members of the Workforce Education and Development program at Penn State: one as a faculty member, the others as doctoral candidates. All have training and/or teaching backgrounds and an interest in ethics. Building on this interest, in spring 2003 we formed a project team to study the special issues and challenges involved in ethics teaching and training. This article is one product of that collaboration. In this section, we describe the content, methodology, and student outcomes in two ethics-related courses. Forty-one percent of our graduate students represent minority or international populations. The international students come from a rather long list of countries including, but not limited to, People’s Republic of China, Taiwan, South Korea, England, France, Turkey, Thailand, United Arab Emirates, Venezuela, Egypt, and Uganda. The students teach, train, and develop and assess curriculum in a variety of academic, non-profit, and for-profit organizations in the U.S. and their countries of origin. Thus, the question of how best to discuss ethical issues in classes and workshops containing people from a variety of cultures is of particular interest to us and our students. The first class we describe is a training course that contains a module on ethical decision- making. The main objective of the module is to stimulate a dialogue on professional and workplace ethics and to encourage critical thinking about the ethical issues commonly experienced by people in the training and development field. This module is taught early in order that issues raised may continue to be discussed throughout the class. After a review of the professional codes developed by the Academy of Human Resource Development (AHRD) and The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) and a discussion of the benefits and constraints of such codes, the instructor gives examples of common types of ethical situations that occur in a training/consulting context. Since the students are, in many cases, mid- career professionals, they are able to add several of their own examples. Students then work in small groups to discuss ethical issues and options for behavior using sample vignettes provided by the instructor. Given the high percentage of international students present in this class, several cultural perspectives are explored during these discussions. As students struggle to understand cultural values different from their own, they develop an appreciation of the complexities of working in a multicultural environment. Each group also develops an ethical vignette and presents it to the class. Based on observations from the instructor, this approach has stimulated Proceedings of the 2003 Association for Business Communication Annual Convention. Copyright ©2003, Association for Business Communication 3
  • 4. discussions on ethical issues in subsequent modules and also in other classes within the program. Additionally, written anonymous feedback from students who have taken this course indicates that students value the discussions on ethics and gain insights that they believe will help them when working with people from similar and dissimilar cultures. Our second class, a seminar entitled Ethics in the Workplace: Issues of Relevance to Workforce Education Development Research and Practice, was taught for the first time last year as a special topics course and repeated this year due to the high interest exhibited during the first iteration. Special topics courses meet for two 3-hour sessions. In this class, each student researches an area of ethics that is of interest to him/her, develops a vignette related to that area, and presents the vignette to others in a small-group format. The purpose of the research is to prepare students for an in-depth discussion and analysis of the issues involved. Students gather relevant background information and come to class prepared to facilitate a discussion on issues, options, and possible outcomes. The 2002 class was multicultural and included Chinese, Korean, Iranian, African American, Hispanic, and White students. Students carried on lively discussions that centered on ethical perspectives related to multicultural issues. For example, students openly debated the impact of globalization on gift-giving and bribery and discussed other intercultural ethical dilemmas. Summaries of small group discussions were presented to the entire class for further exploration. Students also prepared papers expanding on their chosen topics. Topics covered in both courses relate to copyright violations and interpretations of the law, confidentiality of information gathered from employees in the course of professional duties, recognizing and respecting boundaries of what is and is not appropriate training content and methodology, misconduct, falsification, fabrication, honesty, maintaining respectful climate in training situations, and trust levels in organizations today and how this affects organization development efforts. Technology was mentioned more last year than in previous years, with corporate monitoring of employee e-mail, cameras in break rooms, and information gathering in general receiving attention. Also receiving greater attention this past year was top management responsibility for ethical climate, and the effect of the current economic and international situation on diversity initiatives, willingness to travel, worker stress levels, and employee morale and collegiality. Conclusion The question raised in the literature review section of this paper regarding whether ethics teaching and training materials should focus on universalistic or relativistic values is interesting, and difficult to answer. As with all topics, content and methodology choices depend on the purpose and desired outcomes of the instruction. In the courses described here, the purpose was to increase awareness of ethical issues encountered in the workplace, stimulate dialogue on these issues, and encourage critical thinking. An additional purpose was to develop sensitivity to multicultural viewpoints. The discussion of ethical dilemmas was the primary means used to accomplish these objectives. This approach would be considered relativistic in nature since there was not one right answer for each dilemma. Questions raised in a dilemma often were subtle, Proceedings of the 2003 Association for Business Communication Annual Convention. Copyright ©2003, Association for Business Communication 4
  • 5. such as, “Is it ethical for a trainer to deliver content that s/he does not believe in?” Our discussion of professional codes appears to fall under the universalistic umbrella since the same rules or standards of behavior are proposed for all members of the profession. These standards tend to be vague, however, and open to interpretation. For example, the students agree that professionals should represent their credentials fairly and accurately, but they disagree on what that means. What some view as ‘putting a positive spin on their experiences,” others view as lying. The ultimate goal, of course, is for these classroom discussions to help students when they face ethical choices in the workplace. Follow-up studies on students and trainees who complete instruction in ethics are needed to determine the effect of such courses on behavior on the job. A related question here concerns measurement issues. What data do we collect? Diversity training faced similar measurement questions in the early days. At first, measurement focused on participants’ self-perceptions of how the training increased their sensitivity to others. Most recently, measurement centers on the collection of hard data, such as number of minorities in higher positions in the company and the number of grievances filed. Measurement in the field of ethics teaching/training may take a similar path. Is it enough that students and trainees believe that the instruction helped them to make better ethical decisions, or do we need other measures? Ethics is an emerging research area in several academic disciplines. With this increased attention, those of us who teach ethics should soon have information that will shed light on some of the issues raised in this paper. Our research team plans to continue to study ethics teaching and training related to ethical preparedness for multicultural and global situations. References Ahmed M. M., Chung, K. Y., & Eichenseher, J. W. (2003). Business students’ perception of ethics and moral judgment: A cross-cultural study. Journal of Business Ethics, 43, 89-102. Brady, F. N. (1985). A Janus-headed model of ethical theory: Looking two ways at business society issues. Academy of Management Review, 10, 568-576. Colson, C. (2002, August 12). A gap in their education. Retrieved July 30, 2003, from PointCommentaries/A+Gap+ in+Their+Education.htm Cowton, C. J., & Dunfee, T. W. (1995). Internationalizing the business ethics curriculum: A survey. Journal of Business Ethics, 14, 331-338. Davis, M. (1999). Ethics and the University. New York: Routledge. George, R. J. (1987). Teaching business ethics: Is there a gap between rhetoric and reality? Journal of Business Ethics, 6, 513-518. GMAC Global Relocation Services National Foreign Trade Council & SHRM Global Forum (2003). Global Relocation Trends 2002 Survey Report. Retrieved July 20, 2003 from Proceedings of the 2003 Association for Business Communication Annual Convention. Copyright ©2003, Association for Business Communication 5
  • 6. Guelcher, S. J., & Cahalane, J. (1999). The challenge of developing ethics programs in institutions of higher learning. Business and Society Review, 104, 325-346. Kolb, J. A. (2003). Communicating about ethics: An issues and options approach. In G. Poncini, F. Frandsen & W. Joansen (Eds.), Proceedings of the 5th Association for Business Communication European Convention, (pp. 70), Lugano, Switzerland: The Association for Business Communication. Lu, L. C., Rose, M.,, & Blodgett, J. G. (1999). The effects of cultural dimensions on ethical decision making in marketing: An exploratory study. Journal of Business Ethics, 18, 91-105. Moon, C. J., & Woolliams, P. (2000). Managing cross cultural business ethics [Electronic version]. Journal of Business Ethics, 27, 105-115. Odenwald, S. B. (1993). Global training: How to design a program for the multinational corporation. Alexandria, VA: The American Society for Training and Development. National Association of Scholars/Zogby International (2002). NAS/Zogby. Retrieved July30, 2003 from Sanyal, R. N. (2000). An experiential approach to teaching ethics in international business [Electronic version] Teaching Business Ethics, 4, 137-149. Spain, J. W., Brewer, P., Brewer, V., & Garner, S. J. (2002). Ethics and geography: Impact of geographical cultural differences on students ethical decisions. Journal of Business Ethics, 41, 187-194.Retrieved July 30, 2003, from Thomas, R. R. (1991). Beyond race and gender: Unleashing the power of your total work force by managing diversity. New York: American Management Association. Wilson, B. A. (2003). Predicting intended unethical behavior. In G. Poncini, F. Frandsen, & W. Joansen (Eds.), 2003 Proceedings of the Association for Business Communication European Conference, (pp. 99), Lugano, Switzerland: The Association for Business Communication. JUDITH KOLB is Associate Professor in Workforce Education and Development at Pennsylvania State University. Her research publications are primarily in the areas of leadership, leadership development, and teamwork. She is director of a current collaborative research project that focuses on ethics in teaching and training. The following three students are members of this research team. DELOISE FRISQUE is a project manager at Pennsylvania State University and a doctoral candidate in Workforce Education and Development program. Her research interests include transfer of training, professional and workplace ethics, and research ethics. HONG LIN is a doctoral candidate and research assistant in the Workforce Education and Development program at Pennsylvania State University. Her research interest includes cross-cultural training, international adjustment, group dynamics, and instructional systems design. ALLEN BONSELL is a training coordinator at Pennsylvania State University and a doctoral candidate in the Workforce Education and Development program. His research interests include ethics, facilitation, and total quality management. Proceedings of the 2003 Association for Business Communication Annual Convention. Copyright ©2003, Association for Business Communication 6