Ethics professors at business schools aren't short of teachable moments these days.
This year alone, a Goldman Sachs' executive announced his resignation in The New York Times, outraged by managers' callous talk of "ripping off clients," whom they referred to as "muppets."
HSBC Holdings has been under investigation for failing to prevent money laundering by potential terrorists and drug traffickers, while Standard Chartered Bank recently settled charges it laundered funds for Iran.
And employees at some of the largest banks in the world are accused of rigging LIBOR, a widely used interest-rate benchmark. Baltimore is the lead plaintiff in a lawsuit against those banks.
With news stories like that, who needs a textbook?
"It's absolutely getting worse, there is no question about that," says Shreevardhan Lele, a business administration professor at the University of Maryland's Robert H. Smith School of Business at College Park.
Many business schools started focusing more on ethics after the implosion of Enron about a decade ago. But given the news these days, you have to wonder how effective those efforts are, or whether ethics lessons can be made to stick once graduates enter the real world.
"It's too soon to judge whether schools are failing," says Paul Leiman, a lawyer and senior professional instructor at the Johns Hopkins University's Carey Business School. "We're catching up to the problem."
Ethics is a required course in Johns Hopkins' MBA program, as well as in the executive MBA program at Maryland.
Leiman says sometimes students come into class figuring they learned everything they need to know about right or wrong in childhood.
"They really do start out with this sense of 'Why am I here? I already am ethical,'" Leiman says.
But Leiman says what people learn as children is not sophisticated enough for the business world, where the most common problem involves making a decision when there is more than one right answer.
He aims to get students to examine their values and then apply them as they go through the MBA program and beyond.
Leiman often starts his course asking students if they would be willing to go to prison for three years — the sentence for insider trader Ivan Boesky — in exchange for $3 billion. More than half usually say the would, noting that's more than they could ever earn — and that a job is sort of like being in prison anyway.
To push them to think about what's important, Leiman says, he'll ask if they would spend every penny they have to save the life of the person they love most.
Everyone always says 'yes' to that, Leiman says. So then, Leiman points out, why would you agree to spend three years away from that loved one for money?
By the end of the semester, he says, few students say they would trade their freedom for money.
Ethics instructors give a variety of reasons why unethical behavior seems to be growing.
Lele blames a shift in the way people judge behavior, choosing to look at whether actions are legal rather than ethical.