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Study compares ethics of convicts and MBAs

02/12/1999

Two candidates interview for a job.

Both appear to be equally qualified for the position, with one notable exception: Candidate A is a recent MBA graduate. Candidate B is a convicted felon.

Assuming most companies prefer to hire ethical employees, Candidate A is the clear choice.

Right?

Not necessarily, according to James Stearns, professor of marketing at Miami University, and Shaheen Borna, professor of marketing at Ball State University.

Inmates, they said, demonstrated as much integrity as graduate business students when forced to make ethically challenging business decisions. Stearns and Borna interviewed 300 convicted felons taking part in college programs at three minimum security prisons in the Midwest. They compared their results to identical research performed on students in 11 MBA programs.

They discovered:

  • Inmates were less likely than MBA students to "pirate" employees with specific, valuable knowledge from competing companies.
  • Inmates were more likely to follow orders in ethically difficult or ethically murky situations.
  • Inmates held customer concerns in high regard, while the MBA students placed priority on company stockholders.

    Stearns and Borna hope their research will provide business managers with reason to give ex-cons a chance, especially those who take part in prison college programs. They stress, however, that their research addresses just one dimension employers must consider when hiring.

    "What we found is that many prisoners could be productive members of the work force, but only if business executives are willing to let them," Stearns said. "The perception is that convicted felons are unemployable because they adhere to a different set of values. Yet, they must have employment to remain viable in society. This research shows their values are not that much different. And, in some situations, their values are more laudable."

    The professors also hope their work will change the way business students learn ethics.

    "The differences between convicts and business students are striking," Stearns said. "But, our research shows that, in general, people know the basic differences between right and wrong. It shows a need for models to help students and managers recognize the ethical dimensions of making decisions."

    At Miami, ethics is an integral part of the business program.

    "Our philosophy is that it's tough to change attitudes and beliefs once an individual reaches college age," Stearns said. "We give our students the proper framework for looking at the salient issues involved in making ethical decisions."

    For additional information, contact James Stearns at (513) 529-1213 or Dave Thomas at (513) 529-7592.

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