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J Bus Ethics (2014) 124:6780

DOI 10.1007/s10551-013-1860-6

The Influence of Business Ethics Education on Moral


Efficacy, Moral Meaningfulness, and Moral Courage:
A Quasi-experimental Study
Douglas R. May Matthew T. Luth
Catherine E. Schwoerer

Received: 31 December 2012 / Accepted: 24 July 2013 / Published online: 9 August 2013
Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Abstract The research described here contributes to the


extant empirical research on business ethics education by
examining outcomes drawn from the literature on positive
organizational scholarship (POS). The general research
question explored is whether a course on ethical decisionmaking in business could positively influence students
confidence in their abilities to handle ethical problems at
work (i.e., moral efficacy), boost the relative importance of
ethics in their work lives (i.e., moral meaningfulness), and
encourage them to be more courageous in raising ethical
problems at work even if it is unpopular (i.e., moral
courage). Specifically, the study used a rigorous quasiexperimental pretestposttest research design with a treatment (N = 30) and control group (N = 30) to investigate
whether a graduate-level course in business ethics could
influence
students
levels
of
moral
efficacy,

An earlier version of this manuscript was presented at the 2009


Academy of Management Meeting in Chicago, IL, and a condensed
version appeared in the 2009 Academy of Management Best Paper
Proceedings.
D. R. May (&)
International Center for Ethics in Business, The University
of Kansas, 330 Summerfield Hall; 1300 Sunnyside Ave.,
Lawrence, KS 66045-7585, USA
e-mail: drmay@ku.edu
M. T. Luth
School of Business, Pacific Lutheran University, Tacoma,
WA 98447-0003, USA
e-mail: luthmt@plu.edu
C. E. Schwoerer
School of Business, The University of Kansas, 350-L
Summerfield Hall; 1300 Sunnyside Ave., Lawrence,
KS 66045-7585, USA
e-mail: cschwoerer@ku.edu

meaningfulness, and courage. Findings revealed that participants in the business ethics treatment course experienced significant positive increases in each of the three
outcome variables as compared to the control group. The
largest increase was in moral efficacy, followed by moral
courage, and finally, moral meaningfulness. These findings
are discussed in the context of the current research on
business ethics education and POS. Implications for future
research are discussed.
Keywords Business ethics education  Positive
organizational scholarship  Moral efficacy 
Moral meaningfulness  Moral courage

Many top global graduate business schools are implementing business ethics, corporate social responsibility,
and sustainability courses in their programs (Christensen
et al. 2007; Evans and Marcal 2005; Evans and Weiss
2008; Rasche et al. 2013) to respond to the plethora of
business ethics-related scandals and calls from academics
to advance business ethics education in universities (see
Swanson and Fisher 2008). Christensen et al. (2007) found
that a majority of the top 50 Financial Times global MBA
programs require one or more of these topics be covered in
their MBA curricula. While studies have examined the
effects of such courses on moral recognition and moral
reasoning (see Lau 2010; Waples et al. 2009) and students
perspectives of effective teaching (Carroll 2005), methodologically rigorous research on other relevant psychological outcomes of business ethics courses has not kept pace
with the integration of such courses into curricula.
The emerging fields of positive psychology and positive
organizational scholarship (POS) have both argued for a
positive approach to ethics (Handelsman et al. 2002;

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Schulman 2002; Stansbury and Sonensheim 2012). The


traditional negative approach to ethics narrowly focuses on
prohibited behaviors, enforceable rules, and sanctions for
misconduct. The positive approach to ethics is more
comprehensive and includes the promotion of positive
morally praiseworthy ideals and behaviors, as well as
examination of the factors that facilitate ethical decisionmaking and behavior (Handelsman et al. 2002; Stansbury
and Sonensheim 2012). The factors involved in such a
positive perspective on ethics deserve more investigation in
the business ethics education domain in order to enhance
the ethical culture and reputation of businesses.
The research described here seeks to combine the two
streams of business ethics education literature and the literature in POS to identify and study factors that may
contribute to the ability of the human spirit to address
ethical challenges in the workplace. Specifically, the purpose of this research is to understand the potential impact
of business ethics education on: (a) individuals beliefs in
their abilities to deal positively with ethical issues that arise
at work and to overcome obstacles to developing and
implementing ethical solutions (i.e., moral efficacy), (b) the
value that individuals place on ethics in their work lives
(i.e., moral meaningfulness), and (c) individuals willingness to stand up for what is right even in the face of adverse
personal outcomes (i.e., moral courage). Thus, this research
contributes to the extant literature of business ethics education by examining these important, yet overlooked to
date, constructs derived from the POS literature that reflect
positive moral capacities of individuals to constructively
deal with ethical issues at work. Secondly, this research
contributes to the ethics education literature by employing
a rigorous quasi-experimental pretest/posttest nonequivalent control group research design to investigate these
potential outcomes of ethics education. Below we briefly
review key findings in the research on business ethics
education and other relevant literature to develop hypotheses for moral efficacy, meaningfulness, and courage as
outcomes of ethics education.

Business Ethics Education


Recent reviews of the business ethics field have focused on
the ethical decision-making process (OFallon and Butterfield 2005; Tenbrunsel and Smith-Crowe 2008) and, more
specifically, behavioral ethics in organizations (Trevino
et al. 2006). Research has also examined the factors that
influence the adoption of ethics in the MBA curriculum
(Evans et al. 2006), the cross-disciplinary nature of ethics
adoption in MBA programs (Rasche et al. 2013), as well as
the prevalence, causes, and proposed actions for academic
dishonesty in graduate business programs (McCabe et al.

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D. R. May et al.

2006). This latter research found that 56 % of graduate


business students admitted to engaging in some form of
academic misconduct within the past year. McCabe et al.
(2006) advocate an ethical community building approach
to help solve such problems. Consistent with other scholars
in the field (Weber et al. 2008), we maintain that ethics
education is at the core of building such a culture.
Weber (1990) was one of the first to review the business
ethics education literature, examining four major studies of
teaching courses in ethics or business and society topics. In
general, it seems that such courses lead to some improvement in students ethical awareness or reasoning levels.
Nevertheless, Weber noted that the objectives of the course
will obviously influence the outcomes achieved. In his own
review, Glenn (1992) reinforced Webers (1990) findings
and similarly concluded that more methodologically rigorous research is needed in the business ethics education
field.
More recently, Carroll (2005) echoed these previous
findings in a survey of students who had taken a business
ethics education course. They reported acquiring a greater
awareness of the ethical aspects of business situations, and
learning ethical concepts that help them analyze decisions,
as well as ethical principles that can help them make better
decisions. The teaching methods that these students report
as most effective are as follows: lectures/presentations by
the instructor, instructor-led discussions after student case
presentations, and reading of texts/articles prior to class. A
review of studies in this area by Williams and Dewett
(2005) echoes Webers (1990) original findings. For
example, they point out that Weber and Glyptis (2000)
research on the service learning component of a business
ethics course found that such a community service project
can raise concerns for social issues (i.e., awareness of
ethical issues). Work by Gautschi and Jones (1998), using a
rigorous quasi-experimental design with a control group,
demonstrated that a business ethics course enhanced sensitivity to ethical issues. Other work reviewed, including
studies by Penn and Collier (1985) and Earley and Kelly
(2004), has provided some evidence for enhanced moral
reasoning and context-specific reasoning levels. Work by
MacFarlane (2001) and Carlson and Burke (1998) found
that students who take a business ethics course also
develop a greater appreciation of the complexity of ethical
issues. Other researchers have shown that exposure to
ethics in the curriculum influences perceptions of the ideal
linkages between ethical practices in business and outcomes (Luthar and Karri 2005). Laus (2010) recent review
and research study found that ethics education influences
ethical awareness and moral reasoning and that students
readiness moderated these outcomes. Finally, Waples et al.
(2009) conducted a meta-analysis of 25 business ethics
instructional programs. Their findings confirm that

The Influence of Business Ethics Education

heightened moral reasoning is one of the primary outcomes


of such education. Smaller effect sizes were observed for
such outcomes as moral awareness, moral judgments, and
perceptions of others ethical behaviors.
The research described here extends this literature on
business ethics education by exploring psychological
variables from the positive psychology and POS movements (Snyder and Lopez 2002; Cameron et al. 2003;
Cameron and Spreitzer 2012). In their recent chapter,
Cameron and Spreitzer (2012) discussed four uses of the
concept positive when discussing the POS movement.
In particular, they suggest such scholarship may (a) adopt a
unique lens or alternative perspective, (b) focus on
extraordinarily positive outcomes, (c) represent an affirmative bias that fosters resourcefulness, or (d) examine
virtuousness or the best of the human condition. We
believe that our approach to positive organizational ethics
best exemplifies fostering resourcefulness in human beings
to constructively resolve ethical problems in the
workplace.
We build on previous exploratory research on ethical
decision-making education in science and engineering courses (May and Luth 2013) and from work in POS (e.g., Pratt
and Ashforth 2003) to explore the role of business ethics
education in enhancing the positive outcomes of moral efficacy, moral meaningfulness, and moral courage. Each of
these is described below, and hypotheses are developed.

Moral Efficacy
Self-efficacy is defined as the belief that one can carry out a
task or set of behaviors successfully (Bandura 1986, 1997).
Extensive research has established the construct as a
positive and significant influence on a wide range of attitudes, intentions, behaviors, learning outcomes, and performance in numerous environments, including education
and training as well as work performance situations (Judge
and Bono 2001; Stajkovic and Luthans 1998). Work in
positive psychology has recognized the powerful role that
self-efficacy can play in ones life simply by believing
you can (Maddux 2002) and emphasizes the benefits of
self-efficacy for well-being as well as constructive working
strategies and outcomes.
Self-efficacy beliefs have been conceptualized and
investigated along a continuum of specificity with respect
to focal tasks or capabilities, from very task specific to
general human agency (Chen et al. 2000; Yeo and Neal
2006). While the latter is conceived as more dispositional
or trait-like, and the former a more state-like individual
difference, training and education interventions have been
established as mechanisms that can be designed to influence self-efficacy.

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Self-efficacy beliefs have been found to be more malleable than initially thought (Gist and Mitchell 1992) and
can be enhanced through training methods that employ
such theoretically suggested influences as mastery experiences, vicarious learning, and social persuasion (Bandura
1986). While increases in mean levels of self-efficacy have
been found to result from training experiences (Eden and
Aviram 1993; Schwoerer et al. 2005), the effect of the
recent increase in business ethics education on efficacy
needs investigation.
Drawing on past research, we define moral efficacy as
an individuals belief in his/her ability to actively and
positively face the ethical issues that may arise in the
workplace and to overcome obstacles to developing and
implementing ethical solutions to ethical dilemmas (Hannah et al. 2011). This definition is consistent with a focus
on fostering positive ethical resources in individuals and
their organizations. It is related to work on moral competence in ethical decision-making by Desplaces et al. (2007)
in its focus on the belief structures surrounding an individuals skill level in resolving ethical issues. Moral efficacy has also been shown to be empirically distinct from
extant measures of moral reasoning such as the Defining
Issues Test (DIT) N2 index1 (May and Luth 2013; Rest
et al. 1999).
In their model of the development of a moral component
of authentic leadership, May et al. (2003) propose the
importance of a leaders beliefs in his/her skills, abilities,
and motivation, or efficacy, as a basis for converting
intentions to be ethical into actions, particularly when the
environment may provide opposition or pressures that
conflict with doing so. They also suggest that developmental activities can enhance leaders moral efficacy and
courage. Similarly, recent theoretical work by Hannah
et al. (2011a) explores moral efficacy and courage as elements of moral conation capacities that contribute to moral
motivation and action and can be developed through
training. Initial work in business education research has
found that required focused writing assignments can help
build efficacy for both ethics and diversity management
(Nelson et al. 2012).
While business ethics education may vary in its goals
and implementation, to the extent that it provides experiences of success or enactive mastery, models or vicarious
learning (e.g., in cases or through role plays), coaching and
encouragement or verbal persuasion, and provides a psychologically safe environment to reduce the emotional
threat that can be involved in meeting the challenges of
1

The Defining Issues Test (DIT) N2 index provides an indication of


the extent to which an individual is acquiring more sophisticated
moral reasoning and gaining clarity about ideas that should be
rejected due to their simplistic or biased solutions.

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ethical dilemmas, it can be expected to enhance moral


efficacy in those who experience it. Based on this reasoning, we propose the following hypothesis:
Hypothesis 1 Moral efficacy will increase for those
individuals in a business ethics treatment course as compared to those in a control group course.

Moral Meaningfulness
Meaning is central to the human experience. Frankl (1992)
maintains that individuals have a primary motive to seek
meaning in their lives. Baumeister and Vohs (2002) similarly argue that individuals have four needs for meaning:
(a) need for purpose from which individuals draw meaning
from their connection with future events, (b) need for
values that lend a sense of goodness or positivity to life and
that justify certain actions, (c) need for a belief that one can
make a difference, and (d) a need for reasons to believe in
ones self-worth.
Meaningfulness has been studied as part of the job design
literature in organizational behavior and has been defined as
the value of a work goal or purpose, judged in relation to an
individuals own ideals or standards (Renn and Vandenberg
1995). Lack of meaning in ones work can lead to alienation
or disengagement from that work and absenteeism
(Aktouf 1992; Wrzesniewski et al. 1997). Research within
the POS domain has demonstrated that enhanced meaning in
the workplace is the strongest predictor of engagement (May
et al. 2004) and thus serves as a motivational engine at work.
Meaningfulness can come from perceptions of task significance (Grant 2008) or from the crafting of ones own job
(Wrzesniewski and Dutton 2001).
In this study, we extend this research on meaning to the
business ethics domain and define moral meaningfulness as
the value of ethics in ones work life. It thus represents the
extent to which one gains meaning from behaving ethically. Such meaning should provide motivation to grapple
with the complexities of moral dilemmas and resolve them.
In order to understand the meaningfulness of ethics in
work settings, we need to discuss the foundational element
of moral identity. Morality has long been recognized as
central to ones understanding of the self (Blasi 1999).
Consistent with other authors (Aquino and Reed 2002;
Lapsley and Narvaez 2004), we adopt a social cognitive
perspective on moral identity. Such a view maintains that
moral identity is a cognitive representation (self-schema)
of moral values, traits, and behavioral scripts. To the extent
that such knowledge about the moral self is easily accessible to the individual, it should exert a strong influence on
actions (Shao et al. 2008). In addition, if this moral identity
is important in a persons overall self-definition, then

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D. R. May et al.

acting consistently with ones closely held moral values


should provide motivation and meaning to individuals
(Bergman 2004; Blasi 2004).
As Trevino et al. (2006) have noted, such a moral
identity is formed in part through interactions with others
as part of the social cognitive process (Bandura 1986).
Class discussions, group case analyses, and paper assignments focused on the ethical issues within a students own
career should provide an instructional context that will help
individuals to define what role moral values, traits, and
behaviors play in his/her identity, particularly his/her professional identity. Thus, such ethics education helps individuals to develop their self-schema related to ethics and
enhances it accessibility. Similarly, ethics education that
incorporates values clarification exercises, discussion of
individuals basic rights, and discussion of the need for
authenticity in ethics across contexts should encourage
individuals to reflect on how central and important ethical
traits and behaviors are to their personal and work lives,
thus enhancing moral meaningfulness. Based on this discussion, we offer the following hypothesis:
Hypothesis 2 Moral meaningfulness will increase for
those individuals in a business ethics treatment course as
compared to those in a control group course.

Moral Courage
As noted above, courage is a concept identified in the
positive psychology movement (Lopez et al. 2003); it is
seen as a key human strength. Lopez et al. (2003) argue
that courage has multiple dimensionsmoral, physical,
and health or vital courage. Of key relevance here is the
moral dimension. Moral courage is defined as the fortitude to convert moral intentions into actions despite pressures from either inside or outside of the organization to do
otherwise (May et al. 2003, p. 255). Such a definition is
consistent with other scholars who note that while morally
courageous individuals are often lauded for standing up for
their principles or the greater good, they may face adverse
consequences and social disapproval (e.g., Comer and
Vega 2011; Hannah et al. 2011b; Putman 1997; Sekerka
et al. 2009). Lopez et al. (2003) note that many authors
have acknowledged that summoning and sustaining moral
courage requires incredible strength and are even so bold
as to maintain that moral courage is the platform on which
positive mental health rests (p. 187). Most recently,
Worline (2012) has argued that overall courage requires
both the simultaneous expression of individuation, an
individuals ability to stand apart from the crowd; and
involvement, an individuals ability to internalize the values and aims of the collective (p. 304).

The Influence of Business Ethics Education

Relatively little empirical work has been done on moral


courage. In the child development literature (Gibbs et al.
1986), moral judgment was related to moral courage in
children. Others have explored the courage to speak the
truth in a health-care setting (Finfgeld 1998), and most
recently, authentic leadership has been linked to followers
moral courage and their pro-social and ethical behaviors
(Hannah et al. 2011b). We extend this research by studying
to what extent moral courage can be developed in individuals in educational settings. Hence, we see courage as
malleable or state-like rather than trait-like in nature,
consistent with other scholars in the area (e.g., Kidder
2005; Sekerka et al. 2009).
Theoretical work suggests that moral efficacy is one
likely foundation for moral courage since it takes great
confidence in ones abilities to justify a courageous moral
action and deal with potential or actual opposition to it
(Hannah et al. 2011a; May et al. 2003). The moral meaningfulness that individuals experience is also likely to
influence the motivation to be courageous in taking moral
action as it indicates how closely the individual holds
ethical values and, in turn, the extent to which such values
contribute to identity. Thus, we believe that ethics education that entails practicing ethical analyses, small group
case discussions, and paper assignments focused on ethical
issues in ones own profession has the potential to boost
levels of moral courage in individuals through the active
development of both their beliefs in their abilities to handle
moral issues and the value that they place upon being
ethical, or moral meaningfulness. Thus, the third hypothesis of the study is offered below:
Hypothesis 3 Moral courage will increase for those
individuals in a business ethics treatment course as compared to those in a control group course.

Methods
Participants and Setting
Study participants were 84 students enrolled in graduate
business courses at a major public Midwestern University
in the United States. Graduate business students were
selected due to the lack of research on ethical attitudes and
behaviors among such students (McCabe et al. 2006). The
two experimental conditions were a control group and an
ethics education treatment group. The ethics treatment
group was comprised of participants enrolled in a course
dedicated to the topic of business ethics. The control group
consisted of participants who were enrolled in a human
resource management business class. All study participants
were currently pursuing a graduate degree in business.

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The second author administered the questionnaires to


participants in the respective classes. The participants were
told that they were invited to participate in a research
project on graduate education and were not informed of the
research hypotheses. With the approval of the campus IRB,
students generated an identification number based on
family information to match pretest and posttest data. They
were assured that only the second author would have
access to individual-level data; strict confidentiality was
guaranteed. Extra-credit for participation in the study was
provided for both treatment and control conditions. For
students not wishing to participate in the study, an alternate
assignment to earn the extra-credit was made available.
This study employed a quasi-experimental pretest
posttest nonequivalent control group design (Hoyle et al.
2002). Dependent variable measures were collected at two
points in time for the treatment group and the control
group. Measurement was taken at the beginning of the halfsemester courses and 8 weeks later at their conclusion. For
the treatment group, this represents collecting the dependent measures before and after completing exposure to the
business ethics education treatment condition. By similarly
collecting pretest and posttest measures for the control
group, we were able to control for the effects of repeated
testing, and to a lesser degree history and maturation of the
sample, thus reducing threats to the internal validity of the
study (Shadish et al. 2001).
As is common in pretestposttest designs, some participants did not complete the measures at both time periods.
In this sample, 14 of 84 participants, who did not complete
the measures for either the pretest or posttest, were
removed from the data analysis, resulting in a sample of 70
participants. Additionally, since many of our survey items
asked participants to rate their attitudes and behaviors
relative to their work, we removed 10 additional participants who responded that they had no working experience,
resulting in a final sample of 60 participants.
To test whether the included respondents systematically
differed from those excluded, we conducted a multivariate
analysis of variance (MANOVA) using the socio-demographic variables collected in this study (gender, age, and
previous ethics exposure). No mean differences were found
between included and excluded participants (Wilks
k = 0.92, p [ 0.10).
For the final sample of 60 participants, age ranged from 22
to 48 years (M = 27.9 years, standard deviation
[SD] = 4.5 years). Work experience ranged from 1 to
27 years (M = 5.8 years, SD = 4.8 years). Sixty-five percent of the participants were male. The ethnic composition of
the sample was predominantly White/Caucasian (83.1 %),
49.2 % of the participants held undergraduate business
degrees, and 36.7 % had previously taken a stand-alone
ethics course.

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Business Ethics Education Treatment

Moral Efficacy

The business ethics education treatment consisted of an


8-week required MBA course. The course objectives were to
develop: (1) an awareness of the reasons why ethics is
important in business; (2) an ability to analyze, develop, and
recommend solutions for ethical problems in business; (3)
an ability to recognize common ethical issues faced by
individuals, managers, and organizations in business; (4) an
ability to identify the dimensions of organizations that
influence ethical behavior in order to effectively manage
ethics in the workplace; and (5) an ability to describe the
approaches that multinationals might use to manage ethics in
an international context. A variety of instructional techniques were used in the course. Short cases (both written and
video clips) were used to practice applying the ethical
foundations and other course material. Student teams were
used to analyze the short written cases. Interactive short
lectures were used to introduce material before applying it to
cases. The major course requirements included two major
papers: (a) a professional ethics paper that required students
to research the ethical issues in their chosen profession and
analyze how they would respond to five ethical issues using
a distinct ethical foundation (i.e., consequences, principles,
rights, justice, and virtues) for each issue; and (b) an integrative case analysis that involved analyzing a current
international ethics case using all of the course material
related to the five course objectives outlined above.

We measured moral efficacy using nine items that were


originally based on Parkers (1998) role breadth self-efficacy scale. Participants were asked to indicate their confidence in their ability to carry out tasks involved in
managing ethical issues in work situations on a seven-point
Likert-type response scale anchored from 1 Not Confident
at All to 7 Very Confident. Sample items include
analyzing an ethical problem to find a solution and
presenting information about an ethical issue to a group of
colleagues. Cronbachs a for this measure of moral efficacy were 0.87 (pretest) and 0.92 (posttest).

Control Group
The control group condition consisted of an 8-week MBA
course in the human resource functions of training and
developing an organizations workforce. The objectives
were to develop knowledge and skills in instructional
systems design and delivery. Class methods included short
cases (written and video based) to be analyzed and discussed, practice exercises, and brief interactive lectures.
Course requirements included the creation and delivery of
a training session and report on this project, as well as a
final examination that was case-based. Ethics as a topic
was limited to a brief description of legal requirements and
ethical dimensions of training and development as workplace practices. The percentage of the course time used was
estimated at less than 5 %.
Measures
The items comprising the scales described generally below
are detailed in Table 1. Unless otherwise indicated, all
items were drawn from May and Luth (2013) and used a
seven-point Likert-type response scale anchored from 1
strongly disagree to 7 strongly agree.

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Moral Meaningfulness
We measured moral meaningfulness using four items. A
sample item is maintaining high morals/ethics brings me
meaning at work. Cronbachs a for the measure were 0.91
for the pretest and 0.85 for the posttest.
Moral Courage
Moral courage was measured using four items that were
originally based on the work by Gibbs et al. (1986). A
sample item is: I would stand up for a just or rightful
cause even if the cause is unpopular and it would mean
criticizing important others. The Cronbachs a for the
pretest and posttest measures of moral courage were 0.60
and 0.62, respectively.
Control Variables
We controlled for three additional variables that could
affect the outcomes of ethics education. First, because
practical experience can alter an individuals ability to
assimilate educational materials (Kidwell et al. 1987), we
controlled for its effects by including it as a covariate in the
analyses. Second, we controlled for impression management by using 10 items from the Balanced Inventory of
Desirable Responding (Paulhus 1991). Impression management is the conscious and deliberate self-presentation
intended to present the most positive social image (Paulhus
1991). Following Paulhus work, the sum for extreme
responses (6 or 7) to the ten items provided the overall
social desirability index, with higher scores indicating a
greater level of social desirability bias. Cronbachs a for
the measure of impression management was 0.75.
Although we included scores of impression management
for the participants as covariates in our model, it is
important to note that social desirability cannot ever be
completely eliminated in any study. Third, we reasoned
that previous exposure to a stand-alone ethics course could

The Influence of Business Ethics Education

73

Table 1 Results of principal component analysis of items


Pretest components

Posttest components

Moral meaningfulness
Maintaining high morals/ethics brings me meaning at work

0.92

0.85

I find that doing the right thing at work is personally meaningful for me

0.88

0.83

Doing the ethical thing gives me purpose at work

0.91

0.84

Behaving consistently with my morals is quite important to me

0.78

0.76

Moral courage
I would stand up for a just or rightful cause, even if the cause is unpopular and it would mean
criticizing important others

0.65

0.54

I will defend someone who is being taunted or talked about unfairly, even if the victim is only
an acquaintance

0.45

0.77

I would only consider joining a just or rightful cause if it is popular with my friends and
supported by important others (RC)

0.68

0.65

I would prefer to remain in the background even if a friend is being taunted or talked about
unfairly (RC)

0.83

0.73

Moral efficacy
Analyzing an ethical problem to find a solution

0.67

0.76

Representing your work unit in meetings with management regarding ethical issues

0.86

0.97

Designing new evaluation procedures for ethical issues in your work unit

0.71

0.79

Making suggestions to management about ways to improve the working of your section
concerning ethical issues

0.68

0.75

Writing a proposal to resolve an ethical problem in your work unit

0.78

0.68

Contacting people outside the company to discuss problems related to ethics


Presenting information about an ethical issue to a group of colleagues

0.68
0.66

0.81
0.78

Formulating an evaluation of the different sides of an ethical issue

0.60

0.66

Formulating strategies for overcoming resistance to your proposed solutions


to ethical problems at work

0.67

0.84

Percentage of variance explained

33.60

13.85

10.60

39.87

13.14

9.68

Note loadings \0.40 are not presented here


RC reverse-coded

influence our dependent variables; therefore, we included


whether participants had previously taken a stand-alone
ethics course (0 = no previous ethics course; 1 = previous
ethics course).

Results
Factor Analysis
Before testing the hypotheses, we conducted a principal
component analysis in order to investigate evidence for the
discriminant validity of the three dependent measures:
moral efficacy, moral meaningfulness, and moral courage.
We opted to use an oblique rotation (Promax) given our
expectation that the dependent variables would be correlated. Evaluation of the factor loading patterns across both
the pretest and posttest conditions provides evidence for
the measures discriminant validity. We originally included

all of the items for the three measures used by May and
Luth (2013), but following recommendations by Hinkin
(1998), we chose to retain only those items loaded above
0.40 on their appropriate factor and dropped items that
cross-loaded substantially on a second factor. Thus, we
dropped 5 items from the original 14-item moral efficacy
scale and 2 items from the original 6-item moral courage
scale and left the moral meaningfulness scale intact.
These factor analytic results, in conjunction with the
internal reliability analyses, provide evidence for the discriminant validity of the studys three outcome measures
and provide overall support for the use of the measures to
test our research hypotheses. All of the final items used in
this research study are listed in Table 1; the three specified
factors accounted for 58.05 % of the variance for the
pretest and 62.69 % of the variance for the posttest.
To further examine the relations among our three dependent variables, we conducted a confirmatory factor analysis
(CFA) using LISREL 8.8. The hypothesized three-factor

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D. R. May et al.

model demonstrated good model fit (v2 = 505.23, df = 294,


RMSEA = 0.08, NNFI = 0.94, CFI = 0.96). Moreover, the
hypothesized three-factor model provided significantly better
fit to the data than the one-factor model (Dv252 = 284.86,
p \ 0.001, RMSEA = 0.15, NNFI = 0.80, CFI = 0.86), as
well as any of the three possible combinations of two-factor
models. In sum, results of the CFA support our proposed
three-factor model in which moral efficacy, moral meaningfulness, and moral courage are three distinct variables.

Analytic Procedures

Descriptive Statistics and Correlations

Hypothesis Testing

Means, SDs, and zero-order Pearson intercorrelations


among all variables in this study are presented in Table 2.

Hypothesis 1 predicts that individuals who complete a


business ethics treatment course will score higher than the
control group on the measure of moral efficacy. As shown
in Table 3, the treatment dummy variable significantly
associated with posttest moral efficacy, F(1,60) = 11.05;
p \ 0.001; g2 = 0.17, and the covariate-adjusted means
were in the anticipated direction (Mcontrol = 5.17; Mtreatment = 5.88). Thus, the analyses support Hypothesis 1.
Hypothesis 2 proposes that individuals who complete a
business ethics treatment course will score higher than the
control group on the measure of moral meaningfulness.
Table 3 shows that the treatment dummy variable was significantly associated with posttest moral meaningfulness,
F(1,60) = 2.90; p \ 0.05; g2 = 0.05. Furthermore, the
covariate-adjusted means were in the anticipated direction
(Mcontrol = 5.71; Mtreatment = 5.98), supporting Hypothesis 2.

Tests for Selection Effects


In order to provide assurance that selection effects did not
confound the results of this study, we tested for preexisting
differences between our experimental groups prior to
testing our research hypotheses. Specifically, we conducted
a MANOVA on the pretest measures of our three outcome
variables (moral efficacy, moral meaningfulness, and moral
courage) for our two experimental conditions. Results of
this analysis indicated that there were no differences
between the treatment and control groups (Wilks
k = 0.90, p [ 0.10), indicating that no systematic preexisting group differences could confound our analysis.

In order to examine our research hypotheses, we conducted a


one-way analysis of covariance (ANCOVA) with our two
treatment conditions as the independent variable (0 = control;
1 = treatment). We conducted separate ANCOVAs for each
of our three dependent variables. Work experience, impression
management, whether or not participants had taken a previous
ethics course, and the pretest score on the corresponding
measure were included as covariates in each analysis.

Table 2 Descriptive statistics and intercorrelations


M

SD

-0.22

-0.16
-0.13

(1) Previous ethics


course
(2) Work
experience

0.50

0.51

8.10

5.39

0.28

(3) Impression
management

4.60

2.54

-0.03

0.45*

(4) Moral courage

5.62

0.63

-0.11

0.10

0.16

(5) Moral
meaningfulness

5.72

0.93

-0.02

0.27

0.42*

0.20

(6) Moral efficacy

5.17

0.77

-0.19

0.16

0.51**

0.40*

0.44*

(7) Moral courage

5.58

0.71

-0.08

0.33

0.46*

0.64**

0.15

0.29

(8) Moral
meaningfulness

5.83

1.01

0.01

0.38*

0.43*

0.19

0.88**

0.29

0.23

(9) Moral efficacy

5.27

0.87

-0.27

0.29

0.46*

0.23

0.39*

0.63**

0.29

SD

0.30

-0.10

-0.16

0.19

0.00

0.11

0.77

0.43

-0.10

-0.19

-0.03

0.05

-0.07

-0.13

3.57

2.60

0.54**

0.23

0.12

0.74**

0.32

2.80

2.78

0.15

0.09
0.37*

0.71**

0.09

0.37*

5.47

0.80

0.07

0.73**

0.35

5.68

0.94

0.04

0.15

0.50**

5.11

0.94

0.15

0.47**

5.54

0.87

0.33

5.86

0.79

5.77

0.76

Covariates

0.07

Pretest

Posttest

0.44*

Note control group means, standard deviations, and correlations (N = 30) are below the diagonal; treatment group means, standard deviations,
and correlations (N = 30) are below the diagonal. Previous ethics course (0 = no; 1 = yes)
** p \ 0.01; * p \ 0.05

123

The Influence of Business Ethics Education

75

Table 3 ANCOVA results


Source

Type III
SS

df

F statistic

p Value

Panel A: moral efficacy


Corrected model
Intercept

17.54
8.48

7.60

0.00

1 18.36

0.00

Work experience

0.21

0.45

0.51

Impression management

1.33

2.89

0.09

Previous ethics coursea

0.01

0.02

0.87

Pretest moral efficacy


Treatment dummy
variableb

7.53
5.10

1 16.30
1 11.05

Error

24.94

Total

1872.17

60

42.48

59

Corrected total

0.00
\0.001c

54

R2 = 0.413 (adjusted
R2 = 0.359)
Panel B: moral meaningfulness
Corrected model
Intercept

33.74
2.17

5 26.01
1
8.35

0.00
0.01

Work experience

0.59

2.26

0.14

Impression management

1.57

6.07

0.02

0.11

0.42

0.52

1 67.84

0.00

Previous ethics coursea


Pretest moral
meaningfulness
Treatment dummy
variableb
Error
Total
Corrected total

17.60
0.75

14.01
2095.25

54
60

47.75

59

2.89

\0.05c

R2 = 0.707 (adjusted
R2 = 0.679)

Since follow-up analyses based on Tabachnick and Fidells (2007) recommendations for pretestposttest
ANCOVA designs revealed a significant pretest covariate 9 treatment interaction only for moral meaningfulness
(F(1,60) = 5.87, p = 0.019), but not for moral efficacy or
moral courage, we ran additional recommended analyses to
see how to best interpret the findings for moral meaningfulness. These supplementary analyses revealed that the
treatment is significant for low levels of pretest moral
meaningfulness (25th percentile; F = 6.05, p = 0.017),
but not for the median (F = 0.74, p = 0.40) or high levels
(F = 0.09, p = 0.76). This means that ethics education is
most likely to enhance moral meaningfulness for those who
start at low levels when taking a business ethics course.
Hypothesis 3 predicts that individuals who complete a
business ethics treatment course will score higher than the
control group on the measure of moral courage. As shown
in Table 3, Hypothesis 3 was also supported. The treatment
dummy variable was significantly associated with posttest
moral courage, F(1,60) = 2.95; p \ 0.05; g2 = 0.05, and
the covariate-adjusted means were in the anticipated
direction (Mcontrol = 5.41; Mtreatment = 5.71).
In summary, we find support for all three of our research
hypotheses. Specifically, we find that business ethics education positively influences moral efficacy, moral meaningfulness, and moral courage. To further document the
findings, treatment and control group means for the three
dependent variables, adjusted for covariates, are illustrated
in Fig. 1.

Discussion

Panel C: moral courage


Corrected model

19.29

5 11.81

0.00
0.06

Intercept

1.19

3.65

Work experience

0.88

2.69

0.11

Impression management

0.80

2.45

0.12

Previous ethics coursea

0.02

0.06

0.82

Pretest moral courage

15.78

Treatment dummy
variableb

1 48.31

0.96

Error

17.64

54

Total

1890.63

60

36.92

59

Corrected total

2.95

0.00
\0.05c

R2 = 0.522 (adjusted
R2 = 0.478)
a
Previous ethics course was coded 0 = no previous ethics course;
1 = previous ethics course
b
c

Treatment dummy variable was coded 0 = control; 1 = treatment

The p value identified is based on a one-tailed test since expectations are directional; the p values for all other variables are two-tailed

The results of this study demonstrate the potential value of


positive psychology and POS literatures to business ethics
researchers as a source of psychological constructs that
ethics education may influence (Trevino et al. 2006). As
noted above, the treatment course in business ethics
influenced each of positive psychology variables (i.e.,
moral efficacy, moral meaningfulness, and moral courage).
The largest change occurred in the moral efficacy outcome,
followed by moral courage, and then moral meaningfulness. The implications of the findings for future research
and practice as well as the studys strengths and limitations
are discussed below.
Future Research
First, future research could usefully explore the influence
of specific instructional methods on the positive outcomes
investigated here. Such research would help the field

123

76

D. R. May et al.

6.50
Control

Treatment

5.98

6.00

5.88
5.71

5.71

5.50

5.41
5.17

5.00

4.50
Moral Efficacy

Moral Meaningfulness

Moral Courage

Fig. 1 Posttest group means adjusted for covariates

determine which particular instructional component contributed most to the studys largest effect on moral efficacy.
Similar to many business ethics courses, the instructional
methods in the treatment group were varied, including
interactive lectures, short written cases and video examples, team case analyses, a professional ethical issues
paper, and an integrative international case analysis.
Knowledge of the relative effectiveness of each instructional dimension in influencing moral efficacy could help
guide curriculum development in business ethics and
enhance its effectiveness. For example, recent research
suggests that emotionally rich cases help improve learning
(Thiel et al. 2013).
The significant effect of ethics education on moral
efficacy may have been due in part to the course objective
to develop the students abilities to analyze, develop, and
recommend solutions for ethical problems in business. This
involves practice of their skills in using both the philosophical and psychological elements of the ethical decision-making process. Research on self-efficacy suggests
that incremental mastery experiences can foster efficacious
beliefs (Bandura 2001; Tolli and Schmidt 2008). Student
teams were exposed to separate short written ethics cases
and given a chance to practice their ethical analysis using
the philosophical approaches (e.g., utilitarian, rights, and
virtue approaches). They accomplished these (and received
feedback) before moving on to do a professional ethical
issues paper as an individual assignment which had them
practice analyzing professionally relevant cases using the
philosophical and psychological approaches. After feedback on this assignment, the students progressed to a final
integrative case analysis that used all relevant course
material for the five major course objectives outlined in the
Methods section. Thus, this progressive instruction with
feedback may have been primarily responsible for the
development of students moral efficacy, yet more research
still needs to be conducted to determine what method may

123

be most influential in producing such fundamental changes


in students. Recent research has demonstrated that specific
writing assignments can help foster efficacy about ethics
management in organizations (Nelson et al. 2012). Future
research is needed to explore the relations between moral
competence (Desplaces et al. 2007), moral efficacy, and
moral behaviors. This research could explore whether
moral efficacy beliefs are necessary for competence to
translate into moral behaviors in the workplace.
Second, the finding that business ethics education
influenced moral meaningfulness suggests that future
research should also focus on instructional methods that
enable individuals to tie the discussion of ethics and values
more directly to their own experiences or future chosen
profession (i.e., the self). One method that may do this is
the formal integration of reflective capability through the
use of narrative, role models, ethical reflection, journalkeeping, and practice (Harris 2008). The instructional
method using reflection and analysis of job-specific ethical
dilemmas may enhance students learning as well as the
meaning attached to ethics in their professional lives.
Future research should explore the longitudinal impact that
exposure to reflection about ethical issues in ones profession may have on the meaning individuals ascribe to
ethical actions. Active struggling to resolve past ethical
mistakes in the workplace may also lead to great changes in
the relative importance of ethics in ones work life. Such
reflection on past concrete experiences and ethical challenges is a part of the Balanced Experiential Inquiry
process outlined by Sekerka et al. (2012). This process has
four steps that are grounded in adult learning principles and
experiential learning: (1) identify an ethical scenario (e.g.,
from ones personal life experiences); (2) examine
strengths and barriers; (3) report-outs; and (4) group discussion. In addition, future research is needed to explore
whether the effects of ethics education may vary based on
different ethical predispositions or lenses that individuals
have (e.g., Brady and Wheeler 1996).
Third, the significant finding for the influence of ethics
education on moral courage was encouraging given that the
treatment intervention only lasted 8 weeks and the willingness to stand up for your principles in the face of criticism is a true test of the ethical individual or leader. Such
a finding reinforces research that suggests ethics education
can have a significant effect in even a short time period
(Jones 2008; Waples et al. 2009). Little research has been
done on moral courage in the business ethics arena with
future managers, and this is one of the first empirical
studies to examine how ethics education may influence this
construct. For moral courage, it may be that the coverage of
course topics embedded in the ethical decision-making
process (e.g., creative alternative ethical actions, how to
implement the ethical solution/action in the organization,

The Influence of Business Ethics Education

consideration of how to deal with opposition, and whistleblowing steps) all contributed to the development of
willingness to be courageous.
Future researchers may explore how an individuals
ability to simultaneously express individuation and
involvement with the collective (Worline 2012) influences
morally courageous expressions in the workplace. Such
research could examine whether business ethics education
could train employees on how to strike that balance through
longitudinal analyses of successful expressions of moral
concern at work.
Future research that considers the theoretical relations
among moral courage and moral efficacy and moral
meaningfulness is also needed. As Hannah et al. (2011a)
have posited, the belief in ones abilities to recognize,
analyze, and develop solutions for ethical problems is
likely a determinant of actual intentions to act in a morally
courageous manner. In addition, moral meaningfulness
should directly influence the motivation to engage in such
actions. Individuals with strong convictions are often able
to find great meaning because their values are tied to their
identities and behaviors as individuals. The research here
found these three outcomes to be empirically distinct from
one another with no overarching latent construct through
CFA analyses. Future research should explore their relations in the extant ethical decision-making frameworks in
the field.
Fourth, Felton and Sims (2005) do a nice job of discussing how instructors should consider their targeted
outputs for business ethics courses. As outlined earlier,
the targeted objectives outlined in this studys focal
course were as follows: 1. an awareness of the reasons
why ethics is important in business; 2. an ability to analyze,
develop, and recommend solutions for ethical problems in
business; 3. an ability to recognize common ethical issues
faced by individuals, managers, and organizations in
business; 4. an ability to identify the dimensions of organizations that influence ethical behavior in order to effectively manage ethics in the workplace; and 5. an ability to
describe the approaches that multinationals might use to
manage ethics in an international context. Such objectives
are consistent with other prominent ethics scholars course
goals (e.g., Weber et al. 2008). Broader targets/goals by
some ethics scholars include environmental change or
global business citizenship (Collins 2008; Wood and
Logsdon 2008). Based on the findings of this study, business ethics instructors may wish to consider formally
targeting outcomes related to moral efficacy, moral
meaningfulness, and moral courage in order to achieve
these important positive psychological outcomes.
Fifth, future research should investigate the long-term
effects of ethics education on the enhancement of moral
efficacy, courage, and meaningfulness as well as on student

77

academic performance (e.g., grades). Arlow and Ulrichs


(1985) early research on the impact of a Business and
Society course suggests that it may be difficult to sustain
over time (i.e., 4 years). Researchers may wish to investigate what factors in the workplace help sustain the elevated
levels of the outcomes explored here.
Sixth, future research may consider exploring the effects
of ethics education on the positive psychological outcomes
explored here in private institutions versus the public university sample used in this research. Previous research has
shown that there tends to be more of an emphasis on
elective ethics courses in private versus public institutions
(Evans et al. 2006). It may be that students who attend
private, religiously affiliated universities are more receptive to ethics education, and thus, the effects observed here
for the positive psychological outcomes may be even
stronger in such institutions.
Seventh, future research should also explore whether
similar effects will be found in corporate ethics training
settings. Such training is often required and of shorter
duration, but repeated yearly, particularly in heavily regulated industries. It may be that the findings here for the
positive outcome variables generalize to the corporate
setting because of the importance of such training to professionals. Indeed, ethics education tends to have more
consistent results with professional populations than students (Waples et al. 2009).
Finally, future research should explore whether positive
ethical behaviors that Stansbury and Sonensheim (2012)
maintain are morally praiseworthy, discretionary, and
positively deviant (i.e., good works) are more likely to
occur among individuals who are morally efficacious and
courageous and derive meaning from such behaviors. The
latter constructs may be a necessary condition for individuals to engage in praiseworthy positively deviant ethical
behaviors.
Strengths and Limitations
As with any research project, this study had both strengths
and limitations. First, this study contributed by combining
two separate literatures, business ethics education and
positive psychology/POS, to select and investigate relevant
theoretically based variables that may contribute to ethical
decision-making. Second, the research examined the influence of business ethics education using a rigorous quasiexperimental nonequivalent control group design that controlled for impression management, previous ethics exposure, and work experience differences among the study
participants. The mean differences between the treatment
and control groups were also adjusted for these covariates
before graphing the effects. Third, factor analyses were
conducted on the three outcomes of interest to provide

123

78

evidence for discriminant validity, and CFAs demonstrated


that no overarching latent factor exists. Fourth, pre- and
posttests were separated by an 8-week time period, enough
to limit any reactive effects measurement might have created after the initial pretest. Future research that assigns
participants randomly to the conditions, without pretests,
would be worthwhile. Fifth, although our sample size is
relatively small, given our expectations for medium to large
effect sizes, 30 participants per experimental cell should
yield about 80 % power (the minimum suggested power for
an ordinary study; Cohen 1988). Sixth, the relatively low
reliability of the moral courage measure in this study may
have provided a ceiling effect to the relations found here.
Thus, the positive news is that while the business ethics
education treatment did positively influence moral courage,
it may have had stronger effects had the reliability of this
measure been higher. Future research should examine the
nature of this general measure and perhaps seek to refine it.
Alternatively, it may be that moral courage is a very contextually oriented construct. Finally, future research should
seek to replicate the findings of this research in other university settings to demonstrate its external validity. Future
research should also consider both the generalization of
these findings to undergraduate business student populations
and the cross-cultural generalization of this studys findings.
Perhaps, members of high power distance cultures will not
experience the same increases in either moral courage or
even moral efficacy if participants are accustomed to deference to managers decision-making. It also may be that the
design of ethics education may need to be different in other
cultures.

Conclusion
Overall, this research study and other recent advances in the
field of business ethics education leave the investigators
feeling positive and hopeful in outlook. Research to date
provides evidence that business ethics instructors are able to
not only build students skills in moral recognition and
reasoning, but also increase individuals beliefs in their
abilities to use these skills to grapple with complex moral
issues and to derive and recommend solutions. Instructors
are also able to encourage students to find meaning in
behaving ethically and to develop the courage to come forward even when pressures in organizations dictate otherwise. When occasionally discouraged in our teaching, we
must remind ourselves of the outcomes of this study and
those in the field who can provide the kind of inspiration we
need in our teaching!
Acknowledgments The authors wish to thank the individuals who
participated in the study.

123

D. R. May et al.

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