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The importance of ethics education

We need to equip our students to be ethical actors and advocates in their future workplaces, inside and outside of academia.

By EMILY BELL | OCT 27 2017

Most graduate schools offer some professional development – sometimes optional to students, sometimes mandatory – related to responsible conduct of research or research integrity. Generally speaking, no standard training exists, although a list of topics that should be covered has been identified. The big picture sees us enabling students to analyze ethical conflicts in diverse situations and act ethically despite the many factors that influence them.

One thing I’ve realized after five-plus years of teaching a course on research integrity is that graduate students struggle with questions over ethics and integrity on a regular basis. My course focuses on helping students to think about why essentially good people sometimes do bad things. This approach, based on behavioural ethics, asks the question, “what factors influence people from being able to make and follow through on ethical decisions?” Similarly, “what factors when present in our environment, in the ways that we think and interact with others, make us more likely to act unethically?” Some of the factors that we focus on:

  • Rationalization and bias: We believe that we are more ethical than we actually are, and create rationalizations to explain any unethical behaviours. We believe that we are good people and this leads us to make ethical decisions rapidly.
  • Obedience to authority: We are more likely to make unethical decisions when we are told to do so by someone more senior than us.
  • Conformity bias: We are more likely to make unethical decisions when we can justify that “the whole group is doing it.”
  • Time pressure: Unethical behaviours are more likely when we act under a time pressure.
  • Fatigue: Unethical behaviours are more likely when we are fatigued.
  • Lack of transparency: Unethical behaviours are more likely when we know that no one is watching.

To anyone who has been in grad school or in a research laboratory, these influences on behaviour likely resonate. By approaching ethics in this way, students feel immediately empowered by the fact that they can identify what these influences look like in their current environment (ex: tight deadlines, pressures to complete multiple tasks at once, long hours in the lab, group thinking and culture among labs). Rarely do people act badly with the intention of doing so. Explaining the reasons for unethical behaviour doesn’t make our actions right, but being able to identify the factors that influence people to act even against their most rational ethical judgment is an important step in giving students the confidence to stand for integrity.

Tips for facilitators

If you are looking to introduce behavioural ethics into your course you might consider some of the following:

  • Develop learning objectives that focus on having graduate students identify their own bias and identify key influences in their current or future environments.
  • Incorporate case studies that entail a range of complex personal and professional ethical dilemmas.
  • Allow time for discussion (case studies or reflection) with senior and junior faculty, as well as peers.
  • Encourage students to think about how these factors may be present in different contexts (for instance, in business, sports, or in different work environments).

A chief benefit that I see in teaching my students about the general factors that influence ethical behaviour is that it equips them with transferable skills for the workplace. Inside or outside of the lab, students will encounter difficult ethical dilemmas in carrying out their work. Recent graduates may also have to navigate new team dynamics, unfamiliar organizational culture, and environments driven by fast-paced returns, and large expectations of employees. Prepared with the appropriate training, students become employees who promote an ethical culture in their organization and act as ethics advocates. In turn, they are also able to make better decisions faster, which in turn should also please their employer.

Besides the obvious benefits of strong moral development in the workplace, I hope that the sheer acknowledgement of the need to examine why and how we make ethical decisions in these trainings encourages additional personal growth.

See the paper “Behavioral Ethics and Teaching Ethical Decision Making” for more examples and further discussion.

Check out this short video about behavioural ethics, developed by the business school at the University of Texas at Austin:

ABOUT EMILY BELL

Emily Bell is manager of the Desjardins Centre for Advanced Training, a program of professional skills and career development for trainees at the research institute of the McGill University Health Centre.

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