Tips for teaching business ethics

19 July 2019 | Story Helen Swingler. Photo Je’nine May. Read time 7 min.
Assoc Prof Jimmy Winfield of the College of Accounting talks about teaching business ethics to commerce students, during his session at the 2019 Teaching and Learning Conference.
Assoc Prof Jimmy Winfield of the College of Accounting talks about teaching business ethics to commerce students, during his session at the 2019 Teaching and Learning Conference.

The toxic spill from State Capture and the Steinhoff saga has underscored the importance of business ethics. But how do you teach ethics to commerce students wired for hard facts and figures? Associate Professor Jimmy Winfield explored possibilities at the recent 2019 Teaching and Learning Conference.

Speaking at the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) recent annual conference, Winfield shared some of the lessons learnt during his 10 years of teaching the course, which is mandatory for commerce undergraduates. He was quick to give credit for the course’s successes to the entire business ethics teaching team.

That he had to change tack was brought home by one early – and brutal – student assessment: “This course is a complete waste of time.”

“Getting the right figure is what commerce students are trained to do,” said Winfield, who is based in the College of Accounting. Unpicking moral principles and ethical dilemmas is not.


“They don’t like to write or think critically, and they don’t like reading academic papers, certainly not philosophy!”

“Speaking generally, they like hard, technical skills, not soft skills. They don’t like to write or think critically, and they don’t like reading academic papers, certainly not philosophy!”

He had to make the material more accessible. Only after a decade of listening, watching, learning, consulting, implementing and evaluating is he starting to feel comfortable.

Challenges and questions

But take heart, he said, encouraging other lecturers hoping to introduce a new course or support course. Meet the problems head on and experiment, he added, citing the seven major obstacles he has encountered in teaching business ethics.

First, can we teach people to be more ethical?

“Let’s be honest, there’s little validity in empirical tests: People saying they feel more ethical at the end of the course is unconvincing. And it’s hard to imagine that you can make good people,” Winfield said.

However, there are three steps required for ethical action: Be aware there’s an ethical issue; identify the ethical option; and have the moral courage to do it – and it stands to reason that a course could help with the first two steps.

“In business many decision-makers aren’t even seeing the ethical issues, and those who are, don’t necessarily think about these in the right sorts of ways. Even if we can’t help with the third step, two out of three can make a real difference to behaviour.”

So, Winfield focuses on helping students learn to identify and think through ethical issues. He is very aware of his students’ difficulties here. In addition to studying accounting, he has the advantage of a master’s degree in politics and philosophy.

“That changed my whole view about what a tertiary experience can be. It is education as opposed to training.”

In recent course evaluations two ratings have particularly pleased him: “This course has made me aware of important ethical issues” (90% agreed); “This course has improved my critical thinking skills” (83% agreed.)

There are other valuable outcomes too: Business ethics has helped students write, argue and think better.

How to approach business ethics

Winfield’s second challenge was how to approach teaching business ethics. There is the “professional body approach”; releasing a code of professional conduct, with all the answers apparently listed.


“But this doesn’t help students to think.”

“But this doesn’t help students to think.”

Then there’s the business school approach using case studies. That’s fun, said Winfield, but it remains superficial if there’s no theory.

“So, we rather use case studies as a way to apply our main approaches: teaching the philosophical theory and the psychological science behind ethics.”

The third challenge was how to integrate the theory.

“We introduce it as it becomes relevant. This is a more convincing way to help students understand how the theory is useful.”

The fourth challenge was teaching a course that’s very different.

“How do we guide students out of their comfort zone? In commerce, the right answers are often uncontested. But in business ethics there are different ways of talking about a problem,” said Winfield.

It’s important to acknowledge the differences and discomfort.

“Be honest and open with students: You are going to feel resistance, but the benefits are that you will improve your writing, critical thinking and argumentation skills. You must convince people.”

Part of the solution is also about students’ attitude: “I hated this course because it was so different” vs “I loved this course because it was so different”.

“Choose to love it!” he urged.

Winfield also believes it helps students to have their accounting lecturer teach business ethics. His advice to others: “Pull someone from the main disciplines to endorse the support course you’re offering.”

He also learnt a lot by identifying where the challenges were for his students.

“Meet them where the biggest problems are. If it’s writing, then pile on the writing support, through videos, tut sessions or notes posted on VULA.”

Also, eliminate unnecessary discomfort.

“They really don’t need to learn to read philosophy papers. So instead we wrote a book, and that’s helped a lot.”

Change the way students think

The fifth challenge was how to change the way students think.

“This was a real lightbulb moment for me,” Winfield acknowledged.

“Marking exams at the end of the semester was depressing. I knew they had been in my class and yet they didn’t know how to use what I’d taught them to answer the questions.”

He spoke to a colleague, a philosophy academic, who pinpointed the problem: The majority of commerce students’ natural way of thinking is not critical thinking.

“At the time, he was teaching a 12-week semester course on critical thinking. I realised that if the philosophy students needed a 12-week course, I needed to spend time directly on the way of thinking, not to assume they will learn it by osmosis.”

So, they made room in the course for a week on critical thinking. Nothing else.

“We explored moral arguments by posing controversial topics as a tool for critical thinking. The point was: Learn the skills of thinking for yourself by being told precisely what it is, being shown how to do it, and then trying it out for yourself.”

The sixth challenge – which continues to hound Winfield – concerns engagement.

“We should have high pass rates for support courses. But that’s a disincentive to engage. Some students just don’t come to class. How can we change that? Weekly quizzes and tut activities work to a degree. Also, mandatory lecture attendance. But that’s draining on resources. And there’s cheating, so then you have to deal with unethical behaviour on an ethics course!”

Make it better

So how does one make a course better? This was Winfield’s seventh, overarching, challenge.


“There’s no better time to improve your course than when you’ve just delivered it.”

“There’s no better time to improve your course than when you’ve just delivered it,” said Winfield.

“Walking back to my office and thinking about what worked and what didn’t.”

He emphasised how everyone involved with the course – academic colleagues, tutors and students – have incredible value to add, “if we’re just prepared to listen”.

“This has changed the way business ethics is taught,” said Winfield.

“I’ve been sent memes, emails and readings from students that have enriched the course. Tutors have suggested new activities and material.”

Fellow lecturers with a fresh approach have said, “Wait there’s a different way to do this.”

After all, the role of business ethics is not to make students more ethical, but rather to teach them to think in the right sorts of ways to allow them to develop their own ethical decision-making processes.

“We try to arm students with the skills and knowledge needed to be what most of us want: to be both successful and ethical. But, just like living ethically, teaching ethics is a journey without a final destination.”

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