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‘Students think it’s important,’ Ivey professor Gerard Seijts says of character issues in business. ‘Maybe it is a generational issue.’

Since the 1950s, the job of business schools has been straightforward – prepare graduates to enter a world where profit is the main goal of any business and maximizing investor returns is the only legitimate and legal role. But that philosophy is evolving and expanding. Social corporate responsibility has been added to the business mix in the past decade or so and the greed-fed 2008 financial meltdown has prodded business educators to look at the character of the grads they are turning out.

Empathy, compassion and other soft skills are suddenly on the curriculum alongside the core competencies.

"The recession really made business schools question their potential role in training the next generation of managers and finance professionals," says Jennifer Berdahl, the Montalbano professor in leadership studies at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business in Vancouver.

"For an organization to be sustainable, it absolutely has to have more ethical work environments and inclusive dynamics."

Although she couldn't say exactly how pervasive the change is, she says, "I think [empathy] is something that business schools are now trying to actively instill in their students."

According to Jerry Tomberlin, dean of the Sprott School of Business at Carleton University in Ottawa and chairman of the Canadian Federation of Business School Deans, "There is a much bigger move toward the emphasis on health and wellness in the workplace."

"I think you will find that it is a trend in business education in general," he adds, "and certainly within business schools in Canada."

Jane O'Reilly teaches a course on occupational health and safety at the University of Ottawa's Telfer School of Management, one that is mandatory for students in its human resources stream and an elective for other disciplines. "So it's a little bit broader than compassion and empathy alone," she points out. "One of the units in that course is understanding workplace mistreatment, and what an organization's responsibility is when it comes to helping their employees deal with mistreatment, and eliminating it from the organization."

Another indication of the move to include such topics is its growing popularity as a research subject. "As I go to conferences, I meet more and more people who are doing research in this area, and also incorporating it into their own coursework," Dr. O'Reilly says.

For the past two years, organizational behaviour professor Gerard Seijts and his colleagues at the University of Western Ontario's Ivey Business School in London, Ont., have been developing teaching materials based on 11 character strengths they consider essential to sound business leadership. That framework includes qualities such as drive and integrity but also humanity and humility, which are not usually associated with the bottom-line thinking in most executive suites.

At Ivey, a study on the human factors behind the crash of 2008 was also the impetus to focus on the question of character, and whether this could even be taught in business schools. For decades, business schools have concentrated on the competencies – "the things that leaders should be able to do," Dr. Seijts says. "But the conduct of individuals inside and outside of the organization also matters. That is the character piece."

Consultations with business executives in the private, public and not-for-profit sectors made it clear, he says, that they understood its importance and were looking to business schools "to sort it out and to bring solutions."

As a result, he adds, Ivey now has "a whole portfolio of case materials and experiences implemented to really make character a less abstract concept. Our objective is to elevate character in importance to the same level as the competencies. We have to bring the cultural change across the business school, and give people the tools to bring these things into their classes."

Citing the example of Haskayne School of Business's new Canadian Centre for Advanced Leadership in Business at the University of Calgary, he also believes that, "There are a number of schools where it's not just dropping a few buzzwords, but actually doing something very concrete in curriculum development."

While the recession (and the bad rap it brought high-powered business academies) is for many the catalyst behind the change, Dr. Tomberlin sees it as part of an already evolving society.

It is students themselves, he says, who are showing signs of a generational shift in attitude, and want a better environment within firms. "I have seen recent surveys about what students are looking for in jobs, and, as opposed to what might have happened 20 or 25 years ago, where it was all about salary, it is now more about balancing work life and personal life. Corporations are having to take that into account when they go for hiring – particularly those that are experiencing shortages in availability of talent."

Dr. O'Reilly has also found a receptive reaction to her courses from Telfer students. A disrespectful or oppressive work environment "is something we have all had experiences with," she says, "so it is easy to draw on the stories that they can provide, and create a really good discussion."

"Students think it's important," Dr. Seijts agreed. "Maybe it is a generational issue. They have seen their parents struggling as a result of the financial crisis. Maybe not all, but for a large number, it really clicks. What's more, we can now tell them that leaders in Canadian organizations and on boards also care about this stuff."

For Dr. Berdahl, one has to be careful in figuring out the difference between words and deeds, however. "I think everybody would say, 'Yes, we value ethical decision-making, inclusiveness, the environment and social justice. But, really, our values become expressed when they get pitted against other values. So when you have to make a decision between the bottom line, or the quarterly report, and doing the right thing by your employees or the environment, that is where it really gets expressed."