Being Ethical in Business


Business people want to know what to do and how to do it. When you are managing an organization, there isn’t time for theorizing. As the adage goes, “Time is money.” So ethics is often thought of as a waste of time. This is far from the truth. Ethics and business go hand-in-hand. The better you understand ethics, what constitutes a moral problem, and how to make ethical decisions, the more of a success you will be. This may not necessarily get translated immediately into higher profits or a more efficient outcome, but it will enhance your overall satisfaction with your life, add to the good of the community, and, in the long run, make your business a better one.

The first time to think about ethics isn’t when you are faced with a moral problem. No one knows for sure what you will do when faced with a problem, but if you already understand the fundamentals of ethics, you will identify a moral issue quickly and be able to make sound judgments about the situation. In other words, you can approach the matter in a sound and efficient manner. You won’t spend an inordinate amount of time figuring out what to do and you will increase your chances of making the right, the good, the moral choice.

It is the rare individual whose ethical values aren’t tested at one time or another. Moral concerns and dilemmas in the workplace are common. And there is much room for ethical improvement. The 2003 National Business Ethics Survey found that nearly a third of respondents say their coworkers condone questionable ethical practices and that managers with less than three years in their organization were twice as likely to compromise ethical standards. Nearly half of all non-management employees (44%) did not report the misconduct they observed. The top two reasons given for not reporting misconduct were: (1) a belief that no corrective action will be taken and (2) fear that the report will not be kept confidential. Senior and middle managers had less fear of reporting misconduct and were more satisfied with the response of their organizations.

The reality of the workplace was reflected in the opinions expressed by business students. About a quarter of 1,700 students interviewed by the Aspen Institute (2002) thought that they weren’t being prepared at all to deal with ethical conflicts in the workplace. This is especially troubling in light of a 2005 Roper Poll in which 72 per cent of the respondents said that wrongdoing was widespread in industry. Only two per cent of those polled found Fortune 500 C.E.O.’s “very trustworthy.”

Ethics is about getting along with people. It is the way people should relate to one another in an ideal sense and then figure out how to apply that in real-life situations. This is true whether you are referring to family or neighbors, business associates, or distant, even unknown, customers.

One approach to business ethics is to learn the relevant rules that govern business. This approach is badly mistaken. Morality in business ethics is fundamentally about what kind of life you want to lead and how to conduct yourself in a way that is consistent with your ethical values and principles. The way you evaluate being moral in business is not much different from how you evaluate being moral elsewhere in your life. The basics are the same whether we are talking about business, family, friends or government.

The person of integrity is the one whose life integrates ethical values to create a consistent pattern of concern, care, responsibility and justice. While it is possible to act one way in one part of your life and in a contrary way elsewhere (think of the happy camp commandants who came home from a day of killing in the concentration camp to kiss their children goodnight), more often being callous one place leads to be unfeeling elsewhere. Compartmentalizing life’s experiences is commonplace, but to make a radical break in ethics this way is to undermine the quality of life. Ethics is, after all, about having a fulfilled life and that means living life as a whole.

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3 thoughts on “Being Ethical in Business

  1. Ethics and business go hand-in-hand, but not just for business people. Consumers I find equally as culpable for wanting to make quick choices that benefit them economically or in terms of enjoyment without thinking through (or ignoring) the ethical implications of their actions. BP may have been ethically wrong to skirt safety measures for the sake of profits which resulted in the destruction of thousands of lives and of ecological systems. Yet, the person who refills their tank at BP knowing this is also participant in encouraging a system that rewards unethical behavior. While Bernie Madoff certainly had victims who were totally unknowing about his fraud, yet there were many who thought he was doing something illegal, but as long as it benefitted them, noone was going to cry foul. Just as business people cannot compartmentalize their lives and decide when ethics applies and human relationships matter, so too must all of us as consumers put our money where our mouth is. If that means fewer dividends, paying more for products that are fair-trade, or riding a bike or walking when possible etc….well…

  2. I agree. My main point in teaching business ethics (or media ethics) is that ethics is a way of life. If you understand what it means to be ethical, then it can and should be applied throughout your life.

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