Teaching business ethics to accounting students.

Carson College faculty members win two awards for publications on using the Giving Voice to Values approach to teach ethics to accounting students.

A framework for addressing small and large workplace conflicts has been sweeping the business world. Called Giving Voice to Values, it was created by Mary Gentile, a professor at Darden School of Business at the University of Virginia.

But does it truly work, and if so, what is the evidence? That was the question on the minds of Jane Cote and Claire Kamm Latham, professors in WSU Vancouver’s Carson College of Business.

“We were impressed with the framework she was using to teach students and professionals how to address ethical challenges in the workplace,” said Cote, academic director for the Carson College. “It’s an active learning approach, and it resonates when we go to workshops and get together with academics. But to move it forward, Claire and I felt we should explore the efficacy of the training. Do people feel good about it and go home and never use it, or does it have a more lasting impact?”

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Jane Cote

What is GVV?

GVV provides tools to move from recognizing ethical conflicts to speaking up when confronted with conflicts. Through practice, it helps to instill awareness and self-confidence.

“One reason I feel it works so well is it builds on your strengths,” Latham said. “You know what works for you, but we don’t have that finely tuned. Through these exercises, you develop game plans and scripts so that in this situation you are more comfortable—so that when something happens and a boundary is crossed, your mind won’t go blank.”

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Clair Kamm Latham

Cote and Latham introduced GVV training into the accounting program at WSU Vancouver six years ago. It turned out to be the ideal time to begin studying how well it works. Now, the use of GVV in WSU Vancouver accounting classes has resulted in two award-winning publications. Cote and Latham received the 2017 Outstanding Accounting Education Research Award for a paper on developing ethical confidence through the accounting curriculum; and the 2017 Outstanding Author Contribution for a second paper on using a peer-to-peer approach to teach the GVV framework.

“What’s unique about Jane’s and my research is that we were the first to show in certain settings that GVV works, so that’s exciting,” said Latham, associate professor of accounting.

“We not only have tested its efficacy but also explored in the process embedding it throughout the accounting curriculum,” Cote said.

Peer training—intriguing results

The peer-to-peer approach in the classroom has proved particularly interesting. Students have their first exposure to the GVV approach in the introductory accounting class. Upper-division accounting honor society members also complete GVV exercises and casework in upper-division classes. Then, with faculty guidance, those students create and deliver workshops for the introductory class—essentially serving as peer coaches so the introductory students learn about ethics from their peers rather than faculty members.

The study found that peer instruction resonates with students, especially with ethics training, because the peer instructors are sharing their experiences and emphasizing the importance of the curriculum. An unexpected finding was the increase in student engagement with co-curricular activities.

A longer-term, between-subjects study explored the efficacy of embedding GVV across the accounting curriculum. In an accounting capstone course, students study the professional code of ethics and read a case study about a new accountant who told a white lie about passing the CPA exam during her first month on the job. After the case discussion, students had access but not authority to access certain class materials. The learning outcome was to illustrate that the code of professional conduct expects accountants to respect confidentiality of client information. Students were asked if they had crossed this boundary, and faculty were able to observe their behavior.

Before the introduction of GVV into the curriculum, all students looked and most students lied about looking at the confidential information. Afterward, none of the students accessed the confidential information. Debriefing both groups uncovered that students in the early group had rationalized that because everyone would violate confidentiality, they should too.

After the intensive GVV training, students said they understood that most students shared values related to honesty and respect and thus chose to not cross the boundary. This understanding led to the change in the behavior. This finding has implications for workplace training and the power that understanding others can have for building an ethical workplace culture.

Trainings as fundraisers

Cote and Latham also conduct trainings with organizations and, in particular, CPA firms to provide ethics workshops that qualify for continuing education credit for CPAs in Oregon. In appreciation, firms donate funds to the Carson College in Vancouver to support students and programs. To date, these efforts have raised tens of thousands of dollars to fund student scholarships, faculty research and program activities.

On April 27, Cote and Latham are conducting a GVV workshop for women in the Vancouver area, titled “Strengthening Women’s Voices in the Workplace.” It will be a fundraiser for the college’s Business Growth Mentor & Analysis Program (MAP), which provides pro-bono consulting services to small businesses in the region. More than half of the small business owners in Southwest Washington are women, and Cote and Latham hope attendees will learn valuable tools while creating resources for other women in the region. The event will be held at Fort Vancouver.

“This workshop will provide people with the tools they can use to create a strategy to address situations that cross an ethical boundary,” Cote said. “In the workplace, such situations often arise at inopportune moments. Taken off guard, we often feel somewhat mute; where do we start? That’s where our training comes in.”

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