A 22-year-old woman in her first real job is dealing with a drunk boss's overt advances at a corporate retreat. What sort of leadership challenge does this present for her direct supervisor, a 28-year-old man who is stuck in between?
A female programmer likes to wear earbuds while working. A senior executive interprets this behaviour as a possible sign of isolation and lack of fit with co-workers. At the same time he's worried that his organization may have a "bro culture" that will drive away talented women, so he avoids discussing his concerns with the new programmer. Is this the right decision?
Both of the above are case studies being developed by Chris MacDonald, associate professor and director of the Ted Rogers Leadership Centre at Ryerson University in Toronto, and Leanne Nicolle, former executive director of the Canadian Olympic Foundation. Her allegations of sexual harassment two years ago led to the resignation of Canadian Olympic Committee president Marcel Aubut.
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"The point of these case studies is to open eyes and to stimulate discussion," says Dr. MacDonald, a former philosophy professor who is also chair of the department of law and business at the Ted Rogers School of Management. "I think business schools need to be talking about how you foster a culture of respect in the workplace. It's not easy because anything I teach my students over a 12-week course can be obliterated after two weeks of working in a toxic environment."
Questions of ethics and morality have been discussed at business schools for decades, but in the past year that conversation has taken on a new urgency and intensity, fired up by social media.
Some business schools, such as Ryerson, are using this as an opportunity to reshape their curriculums. This can mean taking case studies straight from the headlines and dropping them into the classroom, including #MeToo and the bro culture that continues to dominate some industries, including Silicon Valley's tech sector and Silicon Valley North in the Toronto-Waterloo corridor. (One definition of bro or jock culture is carrying fraternity attitudes with you into adult life.)
Will the result of these curriculum changes be more ethical leaders and a meaningful reduction in the number of scandals that dominate the news? Whether it's revelations about accounting fraud at Enron and WorldCom, the subprime mortgage crisis that nearly bankrupted Wall Street, the listeriosis crisis at Maple Leaf Foods or allegations of harassment by entertainment bosses such as Hollywood's Harvey Weinstein or Albert Schultz at Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto, the list is long.
"I'm optimistic that there will be meaningful change in the workplace, though I'm afraid it will be spotty and will take decades," says Dr. MacDonald at Ryerson. "A lot will happen with the co-curricular stuff business schools do, including guest speakers and workshops."
Students are also taking an active role, with clubs organizing seminars on topics ranging from gender equality to working better with First Nations communities, adds Dr. MacDonald.
At Ivey Business School at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., professors and students react in real time to issues that are current and socially relevant.
"A compelling example is our focus on leader character as a result of the global financial crisis of 2008," says Gerard Seijts, executive director of Ivey's Ian O. Ihnatowycz Institute for Leadership. "Character was least talked about and understood, both in organizations and business schools."
The Institute for Leadership writes cases with a character component and designs courses with titles such as Leadership Under Fire. It also helps present guest speakers who at times have more to say about their failures than successes.
The list includes Nick Leeson, the derivatives trader who caused the collapse of Barings Bank, Andy Fastow, former chief financial officer of Enron complicit in his company's fraud, and Monica Lewinsky, who was subjected to severe cyberbullying after her affair with former U.S. President Bill Clinton.
Will an emphasis on character and ethics come at the expense of core business skills traditionally taught at business schools, like finance and marketing? And more broadly at the expense of the bottom line and shareholder return?
"I believe character-related issues should be embedded or discussed in all courses," says Dr. Seijts.
That's an attitude shared by University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business in Vancouver, which established the Peter P. Dhillon Centre for Business Ethics in 2015 with the aim of providing an international voice on the subject of ethics and business practices.
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Last year it moved a course in ethics and sustainability to the front of its full-time MBA program. "We made this change to provide students with a broad foundation for understanding the positive and negative impacts business can have economically, socially and environmentally," says Darren Dahl, director of the Robert H. Lee Graduate School at UBC Sauder.
A course in Indigenous business is being added to the full-time MBA program starting next academic year.
"The 21- and 22-year-olds in business school today are very different from 30 years ago," says Dr. Dahl, who is also a professor of marketing and behavioural science. "They're more aware of issues like sustainability, equity and diversity. Our job is to see those values manifested in the decisions they make."