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Ethics Teaching Grows in Importance in a Multicultural Society

A team of researchers in Penn State's College of Education, headed by Judith Kolb, studied the issues that emerge in teaching ethics in multicultural classrooms.
By Joe Savrock (October 2007)


Kolb_Judith_cp.jpgUNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. - Recent news coverage of corruption scandals at some of the nation’s corporate giants has placed the spotlight on the importance of ethics teaching and training.

Ethics training in the workplace is seen as an effective means of providing business professionals with a flavor of good moral conduct while preparing them to make appropriate ethical decisions. Ethics training also is important at the college level because it provides students with a set of values that they can eventually carry into the workplace.

As American society becomes increasingly diverse, instructors of ethics courses must consider an emerging concern—the cultural differences of their students, according to a Penn State researcher.

“Given that a significant number of the students in any given class may be international, instructors are facing new challenges,” says Judith A. Kolb, associate professor of workforce education and development at Penn State. “Even if the classroom is composed only of U.S. students, chances are high that these students will be working in multicultural environments. Awareness of cultural issues will be useful.”

Ethics Teaching in a Multicultural Classroom

Kolb, along with former doctoral students Hong Lin and Deloise Frisque, studied the issues that emerge in teaching ethics in multicultural classrooms. “Teaching ethics or a module on ethics is a challenge in itself for those who do not have a background in this content,” noted Kolb. “If an instructor is teaching in a multicultural classroom, the issues are magnified by the variety of cultural backgrounds and opinions represented in the students. The importance of balance comes into play when deciding how to value differences of opinion without leaving the impression that every action one chooses is appropriate. This same question is discussed among ethics scholars.”

A consistent theme that emerges at conferences that address ethics teaching and training, Kolb said, is “When do we draw a line in the sand and say this is right and this is wrong? There is a strong international interest in this notion and considerable interest in relativistic and universalistic values among people who are not ethics scholars, but who nonetheless are being asked to prepare future and current professionals to make ethical decisions in today’s workplace.”

Relativistic and Universal Values

Cultural relativism assumes that beliefs, behaviors, and ethical decisions are culture-specific and that the appropriateness of any choice must be evaluated with regard to the specific culture. A classroom focus on relativistic values, for example, would ask students to identify issues and options in specific ethical situations and then discuss how one would go about making a decision. The goal is for students to learn to examine a situation, realize the range of available behaviors and the ramifications of each choice, and understand why others might view the situation differently from themselves.

Universal values are those principles that apply no matter what the situation. A classroom example of using universal values would be for students to examine a code of conduct of their profession, read through some sample situations, and then apply the code to determine the appropriate course of action. But the problem with universal standards and codes of behavior, explains Kolb, is that “they can be vague and open to interpretation. Thus, there is relativism in deciding how to apply a standard or code. Students may agree, for example, that professionals should present their credentials fairly but disagree in what that means.”

Hybrid Approach

Kolb, Lin, and Frisque discussed two courses that each use a hybrid approach to some extent; some firm principles are dictated by adherence to the professional code of a profession or some other existing standard of behavior and other choices are more relativistic in nature. Both courses had a high concentration of international students from various countries in Asia, Europe, Africa, and South America. Topics covered in the courses included professional responsibilities of people planning and delivering interventions, copyright violations, confidentiality, ethical compliance programs and regulations, honesty, technology issues, professional  misconduct, corporate monitoring of employees, and developing one’s own standards, among others.

The first class was a course for training mid-career professionals. The course included a module on ethics early in the semester and then revisited the issues raised throughout the course. The instructor and the students introduced examples of sticky ethical situations commonly experienced by people in the training and development field. Students were asked to consider the issues and options for each situation. This exercise encouraged dialogue among the classmates regarding appropriate business behavior in the U.S. and in other cultures. Students also applied a code of conduct developed by a professionals in the training field to the situations and described what choices would be dictated by the code.

Kolb said, “Using case studies or vignettes is a popular method of instruction. This approach allows an instructor to keep the discussion timely, since the situations change.

“Technology, and particularly misuse of technology, is a topic of interest now,” continued Kolb. “Having students apply a professional code to a situation is a way of keeping the discussion grounded in the ethical standards, issues, and expectations in a particular field while also allowing students to raise issues that relate to their individual cultures and beliefs.”

The second class was a seminar that dealt solely with ethics in the workplace. Each student researched an area of ethics, developed a vignette to illustrate a hypothetical situation, and presented the vignette to the class. Additional material was presented by the instructor and by invited speakers who often brought in ethical models or frameworks for discussion. Since this was not a course that focused only on training and development professionals, there was no one code of behavior to apply. However, again there was agreement on some principles of behavior that were consistent for professional behavior, regardless of the existence of a code, but also  comments such as, “This would not be proper in my country.” For example, students openly debated the impact on globalization on gift-giving and bribery and discussed how one can stand up for his/her own beliefs while, at the same time, respect the values held by other cultures.

Kolb, Lin, and Frisque feel that the students’ exercises in classes, such as the two described, will help students increase their awareness of ethical issues that they may eventually face in the workplace. The classroom dialogue should help them develop sensitivity to multicultural viewpoints.