Taking business advice from Aristotle

Queen’s business ethics course prepares commerce students for the dilemmas that lie ahead

Associate professor Peter Kissick says ethics courses for commerce students will help them make wise business decisions.
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Associate professor Peter Kissick says ethics courses for commerce students will help them make wise business decisions.

The sight of the well-groomed businessperson heading into a courtroom is too familiar to us all. Many have been conned by a few greedy people at the top, from deceitful CEOs to dubious informants.

Queen’s School of Business is actively responding to scandals in the headlines by promoting business ethics courses.

Peter Kissick, an associate professor in the School of Business, teaches COMM 104, a mandatory second-year business ethics and corporate social responsibility (CSR) course.

“They introduced it five years ago, when they redid the commerce curriculum. They removed another mandatory course and information sciences course,” Kissick said. “The school thought it was important enough that we have one stand-alone course teaching business ethics.

The introductory course has two approaches to teaching business ethics. One is a philosophical model and the other is more practical.

“We cover things like literally what are ethics and what are business ethics. We look at philosophical approaches to ethics. We look at Aristotelian ethics or Kant, or all the great ethical or philosophical thinkers. We learn that and try to apply that to business issues,” Kissick said, adding that the course also looks at specific areas like marketing, accounting and environmental ethics.

“We get our students to learn that it’s not just the bottom line in satisfying your owners but your decisions have an impact on a whole bunch of people.”

The course’s timing couldn’t be better. When it was introduced in 2004, Martha Stewart was on trial for insider trading. Two years later, Kenneth Lay and Jeffrey Skilling, of Enron stood on trial for corporate fraud.

Kissick said media attention towards corporate ethics may have prompted the decision to mandate the course, but its purpose of having it is much more substantial.

“Part of it is a reaction to what we see in the headlines, but frankly we probably should have had a required course like this all along, in my humble opinion,” he said. “It’s just something that as professionals we owe ourselves a duty to perform.”

Kissick said in class he uses a topical issue or real life case as a way of illuminating each class’s content.

“Last year before we started teaching, Maple Leaf foods had had their crisis. So we started with that,” he said. “Many years ago Tylenol had a big scare with someone tampering with their drugs, so we had someone come in and talk to the class about how to address that.

“It helps that there is greater interest in that now. Our students are certainly finding the course enjoyable and interesting and all that good stuff, because they read it in the headlines.”

Professor Jim Ridler, who teaches upper-year business ethics courses, takes his students on field trips to prisons for a blunter lesson on the impact of corporate malpractice.

Although Kissick hasn’t taken his students to a prison, he says he applauds the idea.

“I was the director of the commerce program when Prof. Ridler came to me with the idea and said, ‘Do you that this is crazy? Do you think we’ll have any problems?’ I said, ‘I think it’s brilliant. I think it’s great.’” The School of Business offers a certification program in social responsibility, an optional program that attracts many students.

“When they introduced the required ethics course, they introduced the certificate in social responsibility program that students can voluntarily join and it involves course work, electives in ethics CSR, volunteer work in the community and attending special workshops in CSR,” Kissick said, adding that half the first-year class joined the course when it was first introduced.

Kissick said although enrollment for the program in first year is very high, many drop out by second or third year after discovering the workload. He estimates that only about 35 to 40 students per year complete the certificate.

Maintaining a high standard for the program is important, he said.

“We don’t want to give these things away like paper towel. You actually have to work for it,” he said.

Kissick said he believes the certification program and ethics courses help students make good decisions down the road, but there will inevitably be some bad apples.

“My personal view is we’ve been lucky. We haven’t had a lot of skeletons in our closet. We don’t have a lot of our grads who’ve made headlines doing unethical things. That’s not to say that we haven’t had grads who’ve done bad things. I would at least like to believe that we’ll have students who are a little more aware of what they’re doing after they graduate.

“The Bernie Madoffs of the world are the Bernie Madoffs of the world. He’s a criminal and there’s not much we can do about that,” Kissick said. “Are we going to avoid Bernie Madoffs? No. Are we going to help students who are basically good people sort through some of these ethical issues so they end up on the right side? I hope so.”

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