Business studies students have shown an alarming tendency to abandon ethical awareness after exposure to the workplace and need earlier training in ethics, a researcher has warned.
A study conducted by Nottingham Trent University's business school found that final-year business students who had attended work placements were less likely to show ethical awareness than those in their second year.
Out of 288 students asked to imagine they were recruiting for a firm and could choose between a candidate with inside knowledge of another company and another otherwise equal candidate without this knowledge, 56 per cent of second-years cited ethical reasons for not recruiting the first candidate compared with 34 per cent of final-year students.
Senior lecturer Diannah Lowry, who led the research, said that although the final-year students had been on work placements, it was not necessarily this that had changed their attitudes.
But she said it was clear that ethics education needed to start earlier to ensure students did not abandon moral values once they entered the workplace.
She said: "In a world that is post-Enron this is an extremely worrying situation. These students are losing their ethical awareness at a stage when it should be becoming stronger. Although the reasons for this decline are not entirely clear, it appears that many students develop a tendency to disengage with ethical issues while they experience the pressures of organisational life."
Dr Lowry pointed out that traditionally many business students are not exposed to ethics education until their final year.
She said: "Since part of Enron's downfall was apparently due to artificially inflated profits and dubious accounting, both of which have ethical implications, in the light of this research the potential for another situation like Enron occurring is there.
"It is essential business and universities address this issue and make sure that students are as ethically aware as possible and as early as possible in their careers."