What is Business Ethics?
The Idea of Business Ethics
It’s in the best interest of a company to operate ethically. Trustworthy companies are better at attracting and keeping customers, talented employees, and capital. Those tainted by questionable ethics suffer from dwindling customer bases, employee turnover, and investor mistrust.
Let’s begin this section by addressing this question: What can individuals, organizations, and government agencies do to foster an environment of ethical behavior in business? First, of course, we need to define the term.
What Is Ethics?
You probably already know what it means to be ethical: to know right from wrong and to know when you’re practicing one instead of the other. We can say that business ethics is the application of ethical behavior in a business context. Acting ethically in business means more than simply obeying applicable laws and regulations: It also means being honest, doing no harm to others, competing fairly, and declining to put your own interests above those of your company, its owners, and its workers. If you’re in business you obviously need a strong sense of what’s right and wrong. You need the personal conviction to do what’s right, even if it means doing something that’s difficult or personally disadvantageous.
Why Study Ethics?
Ideally, prison terms, heavy fines, and civil suits would discourage corporate misconduct, but, unfortunately, many experts suspect that this assumption is a bit optimistic. Whatever the condition of the ethical environment in the near future, one thing seems clear: the next generation entering business—which includes most of you—will find a world much different than the one that waited for the previous generation. Recent history tells us in no uncertain terms that today’s business students, many of whom are tomorrow’s business leaders, need a much sharper understanding of the difference between what is and isn’t ethically acceptable. As a business student, one of your key tasks is learning how to recognize and deal with the ethical challenges that will confront you. Asked what he looked for in a new hire, Warren Buffet, the world’s most successful investor, replied: “I look for three things. The first is personal integrity, the second is intelligence, and the third is a high energy level.” He paused and then added: “But if you don’t have the first, the second two don’t matter.”10
Identifying Ethical Issues and Dilemmas
Ethical issues are the difficult social questions that involve some level of controversy over what is the right thing to do. Environmental protection is an example of a commonly discussed ethical issue, because there can be tradeoffs between environmental and economic factors.
Ethical dilemmas are situations in which it is difficult for an individual to make decisions either because the right course of action is unclear or carries some potential negative consequences for the person or people involved.
Make no mistake about it: when you enter the business world, you’ll find yourself in situations in which you’ll have to choose the appropriate behavior. How, for example, would you answer questions like the following?
- Is it OK to accept a pair of sports tickets from a supplier?
- Can I buy office supplies from my brother-in-law?
- Is it appropriate to donate company funds to a local charity?
- If I find out that a friend is about to be fired, can I warn her?
Obviously, the types of situations are numerous and varied. Fortunately, we can break them down into a few basic categories: issues of honesty and integrity, conflicts of interest and loyalty, bribes versus gifts, and whistle-blowing. Let’s look a little more closely at each of these categories.
Issues of Honesty and Integrity
Master investor Warren Buffet once told a group of business students the following: “I cannot tell you that honesty is the best policy. I can’t tell you that if you behave with perfect honesty and integrity somebody somewhere won’t behave the other way and make more money. But honesty is a good policy. You’ll do fine, you’ll sleep well at night and you’ll feel good about the example you are setting for your coworkers and the other people who care about you.”11
If you work for a company that settles for its employees’ merely obeying the law and following a few internal regulations, you might think about moving on. If you’re being asked to deceive customers about the quality or value of your product, you’re in an ethically unhealthy environment.
Think about this story:
“A chef put two frogs in a pot of warm soup water. The first frog smelled the onions, recognized the danger, and immediately jumped out. The second frog hesitated: The water felt good, and he decided to stay and relax for a minute. After all, he could always jump out when things got too hot (so to speak). As the water got hotter, however, the frog adapted to it, hardly noticing the change. Before long, of course, he was the main ingredient in frog-leg soup.”12
So, what’s the moral of the story? Don’t sit around in an ethically toxic environment and lose your integrity a little at a time; get out before the water gets too hot and your options have evaporated. Fortunately, a few rules of thumb can guide you.
We’ve summed them up in Figure 4.2.
Conflicts of Interest
Conflicts of interest occur when individuals must choose between taking actions that promote their personal interests over the interests of others or taking actions that don’t. A conflict can exist, for example, when an employee’s own interests interfere with, or have the potential to interfere with, the best interests of the company’s stakeholders (management, customers, and owners). Let’s say that you work for a company with a contract to cater events at your college and that your uncle owns a local bakery. Obviously, this situation could create a conflict of interest (or at least give the appearance of one—which is a problem in itself). When you’re called on to furnish desserts for a luncheon, you might be tempted to send some business your uncle’s way even if it’s not in the best interest of your employer. What should you do? You should disclose the connection to your boss, who can then arrange things so that your personal interests don’t conflict with the company’s.
The same principle holds that an employee shouldn’t use private information about an employer for personal financial benefit. Say that you learn from a coworker at your pharmaceutical company that one of its most profitable drugs will be pulled off the market because of dangerous side effects. The recall will severely hurt the company’s financial performance and cause its stock price to plummet. Before the news becomes public, you sell all the stock you own in the company. What you’ve done is called insider trading – acting on information that is not available to the general public, either by trading on it or providing it to others who trade on it. Insider trading is illegal, and you could go to jail for it.
Conflicts of Loyalty
You may one day find yourself in a bind between being loyal either to your employer or to a friend or family member. Perhaps you just learned that a coworker, a friend of yours, is about to be downsized out of his job. You also happen to know that he and his wife are getting ready to make a deposit on a house near the company headquarters. From a work standpoint, you know that you shouldn’t divulge the information. From a friendship standpoint, though, you feel it’s your duty to tell your friend. Wouldn’t he tell you if the situation were reversed? So what do you do? As tempting as it is to be loyal to your friend, you shouldn’t tell. As an employee, your primary responsibility is to your employer. You might be able to soften your dilemma by convincing a manager with the appropriate authority to tell your friend the bad news before he puts down his deposit.
Bribes versus Gifts
It’s not uncommon in business to give and receive small gifts of appreciation, but when is a gift unacceptable? When is it really a bribe?
There’s often a fine line between a gift and a bribe. The following information may help in drawing it, because it raises key issues in determining how a gesture should be interpreted: the cost of the item, the timing of the gift, the type of gift, and the connection between the giver and the receiver. If you’re on the receiving end, it’s a good idea to refuse any item that’s overly generous or given for the purpose of influencing a decision. Because accepting even small gifts may violate company rules, always check on company policy.
JCPenney’s “Statement of Business Ethics,” for instance, states that employees can’t accept any cash gifts or any noncash gifts except those that have a value below $50 and that are generally used by the giver for promotional purposes. Employees can attend paid-for business functions, but other forms of entertainment, such as sports events and golf outings, can be accepted only if it’s practical for the Penney’s employee to reciprocate. Trips of several days can’t be accepted under any circumstances.13
As we’ve seen, the misdeeds of Betty Vinson and her accomplices at WorldCom didn’t go undetected. They caught the eye of Cynthia Cooper, the company’s director of internal auditing. Cooper, of course, could have looked the other way, but instead she summoned up the courage to be a whistle-blower—an individual who exposes illegal or unethical behavior in an organization. Like Vinson, Cooper had majored in accounting at Mississippi State and was a hard-working, dedicated employee. Unlike Vinson, however, she refused to be bullied by her boss, CFO Scott Sullivan. In fact, she had tried to tell not only Sullivan but also auditors from the Arthur Andersen accounting firm that there was a problem with WorldCom’s books. The auditors dismissed her warnings, and when Sullivan angrily told her to drop the matter, she started cleaning out her office. But she didn’t relent. She and her team worked late each night, conducting an extensive, secret investigation. Two months later, Cooper had evidence to take to Sullivan, who told her once again to back off. Again, however, she stood up to him, and though she regretted the consequences for her WorldCom coworkers, she reported the scheme to the company’s board of directors. Within days, Sullivan was fired and the largest accounting fraud in history became public.14
As a result of Cooper’s actions, executives came clean about the company’s financial situation. The conspiracy of fraud was brought to an end, and though public disclosure of WorldCom’s problems resulted in massive stock-price declines and employee layoffs, investor and employee losses would have been greater without Cooper’s intervention. Even though Cooper did the right thing, and landed on the cover of Time magazine for it, the experience wasn’t exactly gratifying.
A lot of people applauded her action, but many coworkers shunned her; some even blamed her for the company’s troubles.15
Whistle-blowing is sometimes career suicide. A survey of two hundred whistle-blowers conducted by the National Whistleblower Center found that half were fired for blowing the whistle.16 Even those who keep their jobs can experience repercussions. As long as they stay, some will treat them (as one whistle-blower put it) “like skunks at a picnic”; if they leave, they may be blackballed in the industry.17 On a positive note, new Federal laws have been passed which are intended to protect whistle-blowers.
For her own part, Cynthia Cooper doesn’t regret what she did. As she told a group of students at Mississippi State: “Strive to be persons of honor and integrity. Do not allow yourself to be pressured. Do what you know is right even if there may be a price to be paid.”18 If your company tells employees to do whatever it takes, push the envelope, look the other way, and “be sure that we make our numbers,” you have three choices: go along with the policy, try to change things, or leave. If your personal integrity is part of the equation, you’re probably down to the last two choices.19
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Corporate Social Responsibility
Corporate social responsibility refers to the approach that an organization takes in balancing its responsibilities toward different stakeholders when making legal, economic, ethical, and social decisions. Remember that we previously defined stakeholders as those with a legitimate interest in the success or failure of the business and the policies it adopts. The term social responsibility refers to the approach that an organization takes in balancing its responsibilities toward their various stakeholders.
What motivates companies to be “socially responsible”? We hope it’s because they want to do the right thing, and for many companies, “doing the right thing” is a key motivator. The fact is, it’s often hard to figure out what the “right thing” is: what’s “right” for one group of stakeholders isn’t necessarily just as “right” for another. One thing, however, is certain: companies today are held to higher standards than ever before. Consumers and other groups consider not only the quality and price of a company’s products but also its character. If too many groups see a company as a poor corporate citizen, it will have a harder time attracting qualified employees, finding investors, and selling its products. Good corporate citizens, by contrast, are more successful in all these areas.
Figure 4.3 presents a model of corporate responsibility based on a company’s relationships with its stakeholders. In this model, the focus is on managers—not owners—as the principals involved in these relationships. Owners are the stakeholders who invest risk capital in the firm in expectation of a financial return. Other stakeholders include employees, suppliers, and the communities in which the firm does business. Proponents of this model hold that customers, who provide the firm with revenue, have a special claim on managers’ attention. The arrows indicate the two-way nature of corporation-stakeholder relationships: All stakeholders have some claim on the firm’s resources and returns, and management’s job is to make decisions that balance these claims.20
Let’s look at some of the ways in which companies can be “socially responsible” in considering the claims of various stakeholders.
Owners invest money in companies. In return, the people who run a company have a responsibility to increase the value of owners’ investments through profitable operations. Managers also have a responsibility to provide owners (as well as other stakeholders having financial interests, such as creditors and suppliers) with accurate, reliable information about the performance of the business. Clearly, this is one of the areas in which WorldCom managers fell down on the job. Upper-level management purposely deceived shareholders by presenting them with fraudulent financial statements
Managers have what is known as a fiduciary responsibility to owners: they’re responsible for safeguarding the company’s assets and handling its funds in a trustworthy manner. Yet managers experience what is called the agency problem; a situation in which their best interests do not align with those of the owners who employ them. To enforce managers’ fiduciary responsibilities for a firm’s financial statements and accounting records, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 requires CEOs and CFOs to attest to their accuracy. The law also imposes penalties on corporate officers, auditors, board members, and any others who commit fraud. You’ll learn more about this law in your accounting and business law courses.
Companies are responsible for providing employees with safe, healthy places to work—as well as environments that are free from sexual harassment and all types of discrimination. They should also offer appropriate wages and benefits. In the following sections, we’ll take a closer look at these areas of corporate responsibility.
Wages and Benefits
At the very least, employers must obey laws governing minimum wage and overtime pay. A minimum wage is set by the federal government, though states can set their own rates as long as they are higher. The current federal rate, for example, is $7.25, while the rate in many states is far higher.21 By law, employers must also provide certain benefits—social security (retirement funds), unemployment insurance (protects against loss of income in case of job loss), and workers’ compensation (covers lost wages and medical costs in case of on-the-job injury). Most large companies pay most of their workers more than minimum wage and offer broader benefits, including medical, dental, and vision care, as well as savings programs, in order to compete for talent.
Safety and Health
Though it seems obvious that companies should guard workers’ safety and health, some simply don’t. For over four decades, for example, executives at Johns Manville suppressed evidence that one of its products, asbestos, was responsible for the deadly lung disease developed by many of its workers.22 The company concealed chest X- rays from stricken workers, and executives decided that it was simply cheaper to pay workers’ compensation claims than to create a safer work environment. A New Jersey court was quite blunt in its judgment: Johns Manville, it held, had made a deliberate, cold-blooded decision to do nothing to protect at-risk workers, in blatant disregard of their rights.23
About four in one hundred thousand U.S. workers die in workplace “incidents” each year. The Department of Labor categorizes deaths caused by conditions like those at Johns Manville as “exposure to harmful substances or environments.” How prevalent is this condition as a cause of workplace deaths? See Figure 4.4, “Workplace Deaths by Event or Exposure, 2014”, which breaks down workplace fatalities by cause. Some jobs are more dangerous than others. For a comparative overview based on workplace deaths by occupation, see Figure 4.5.
|Industry||% of Total Workplace Deaths|
|Transportation and Warehousing||16%|
|Agriculture, Forestry, and Fishing||12%|
|Professional and Business Services||9%|
|Leisure and Hospitality||4%|
|Mining, Quarrying, and Natural Gas Extraction||4%|
To test the validity of this approach, let’s take a point-by-point look at Betty Vinson’s decisions:
- Her actions were clearly illegal.
- They were unfair to the workers who lost their jobs and to the investors who suffered financial losses (and also to her family, who shared her public embarrassment).
- She definitely felt badly about what she’d done.
- She was embarrassed to tell other people what she had done.
- Reports of her actions appeared in her local newspaper (and just about every other newspaper in the country).
So Vinson could have answered “yes” to all five of our test questions. To simplify matters, remember the following rule of thumb: If you answer yes to any one of these five questions, odds are that you’re about to do something you shouldn’t.
Revisiting Johnson & Johnson
As discussed earlier, Johnson & Johnson received tremendous praise for the actions taken by its CEO, James Burke, in response to the 1982 Tylenol catastrophe. However, things change. To learn how a company can destroy its good reputation, let’s fast forward to 2008 and revisit J&J and its credo, which states, “We believe our first responsibility is to the doctors, nurses and patients, to mothers and fathers and all others who use our products and services. In meeting their needs everything we do must be of high quality.”38 How could a company whose employees believed so strongly in its credo find itself under criminal and congressional investigation for a series of recalls due to defective products?39 In a three-year period, the company recalled twenty-four products, including Children’s, Infants’ and Adults’ Tylenol, Motrin, and Benadryl;40 1-Day Acuvue TruEye contact lenses sold outside the U.S.;41 and hip replacements.42
Unlike the Tylenol recall, no one had died from the defective products, but customers were certainly upset to find they had purchased over-the-counter medicines for themselves and their children that were potentially contaminated with dark particles or tiny specks of metal;43 contact lenses that contained a type of acid that caused stinging or pain when inserted in the eye;44 and defective hip implants that required patients to undergo a second hip replacement.45
Who bears the responsibility for these image-damaging blunders? Two individuals who were at least partially responsible were William Weldon, CEO, and Colleen Goggins, Worldwide Chairman of J&J’s Consumer Group. Weldon has been criticized for being largely invisible and publicly absent during the recalls.46 Additionally, he admitted that he did not understand the consumer division where many of the quality control problems originated.47 Goggins was in charge of the factories that produced many of the recalled products. She was heavily criticized by fellow employees for her excessive cost-cutting measures and her propensity to replace experienced scientists with new hires.48 In addition, she was implicated in scheme to avoid publicly disclosing another J&J recall of a defective product.
After learning that J&J had released packets of Motrin that did not dissolve correctly, the company hired contractors to go into convenience stores and secretly buy up every pack of Motrin on the shelves. The instructions given to the contractors were the following: “You should simply ‘act’ like a regular customer while making these purchases. THERE MUST BE NO MENTION OF THIS BEING A RECALL OF THE PRODUCT!”49 In May 2010, when Goggins appeared before a congressional committee investigating the “phantom recall,” she testified that she was not aware of the behavior of the contractors50 and that she had “no knowledge of instructions to contractors involved in the phantom recall to not tell store employees what they were doing.” In her September 2010 testimony to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, she acknowledged that the company in fact wrote those very instructions.
Refusing to Rationalize
Despite all the good arguments in favor of doing the right thing, why do many reasonable people act unethically (at least at times)? Why do good people make bad choices? According to one study, there are four common rationalizations (excuses) for justifying misconduct:51
- My behavior isn’t really illegal or immoral. Rationalizers try to convince themselves that an action is OK if it isn’t downright illegal or blatantly immoral. They tend to operate in a gray area where there’s no clear evidence that the action is wrong.
- My action is in everyone’s best interests. Some rationalizers tell themselves: “I know I lied to make the deal, but it’ll bring in a lot of business and pay a lot of bills.” They convince themselves that they’re expected to act in a certain way.52
- No one will find out what I’ve done. Here, the self-questioning comes down to “If I didn’t get caught, did I really do it?” The answer is yes. There’s a simple way to avoid succumbing to this rationalization: Always act as if you’re being watched.
- The company will condone my action and protect me. This justification rests on a fallacy. Betty Vinson may honestly have believed that her actions were for the good of the company and that her boss would, therefore, accept full responsibility (as he promised). When she goes to jail, however, she’ll go on her own.
Here’s another rule of thumb: If you find yourself having to rationalize a decision, it’s probably a bad one.
What to Do When the Light Turns Yellow
Like our five questions, some ethical problems are fairly straightforward. Others, unfortunately, are more complicated, but it will help to think of our five-question test as a set of signals that will warn you that you’re facing a particularly tough decision— that you should think carefully about it and perhaps consult someone else. The situation is like approaching a traffic light. Red and green lights are easy; you know what they mean and exactly what to do. Yellow lights are trickier. Before you decide which pedal to hit, try posing our five questions. If you get a single yes, you’ll almost surely be better off hitting the brake.53
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Foxconn is a major supplier to Apple. All of its factories are in China and Taiwan, although it recently announced building a new one in the United States. Working conditions are much different than in a typical US factory. As you watch the video, think about what responsibilities Apple has in this situation. They don’t own Foxconn or its factories, yet their reputation can be nevertheless impacted.
To view this video, visit: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jk-xqPKOxl4&=&t=39s
- Business ethics is the application of ethical behavior in a business context. Ethical (trustworthy) companies are better able to attract and keep customers, talented employees, and capital.
- Acting ethically in business means more than just obeying laws and regulations. It also means being honest, doing no harm to others, competing fairly, and declining to put your own interests above those of your employer and coworkers.
- In the business world, you’ll encounter conflicts of interest: situations in which you’ll have to choose between taking action that promotes your personal interest and action that favors the interest of others.
- Corporate social responsibility refers to the approach that an organization takes in balancing its responsibilities toward different stakeholders (owners, employees, customers, and the communities in which they conduct business) when making legal, economic, ethical, and social decisions.
- Managers have several responsibilities: to increase the value of owners’ investments through proﬁtable operations, to provide owners and other stakeholders with accurate, reliable ﬁnancial information, and to safeguard the company’s assets and handle its funds in a trustworthy manner.
- Companies have a responsibility to pay appropriate wages and beneﬁts, treat all workers fairly, and provide equal opportunities for all employees. In addition, the must guard workers’ safety and health and to provide them with a work environment that’s free from sexual harassment.
- Consumers have certain legal rights: to use safe products, to be informed about products, to choose what to buy, and to be heard. Sellers must comply with these requirements.
- Businesspeople face two types of ethical challenges: ethical dilemmas and ethical decisions.
- An ethical dilemma is a morally problematic situation in which you must choose competing and often conflicting options which do not satisfy all stakeholders.
- An ethical decision is one in which there’s a right (ethical) choice and a wrong (unethical or downright illegal) choice.
Chapter 4 Text References and Image Credits
Image Credits: Chapter 4
Figure 4.1: “Bernie Madoff’s Mug Shot.” U.S. Department of Justice, public domain. Retrieved from:
Video Credits: Chapter 4
“Foxconn: An Exclusive Inside Look.” (ABC News). February 21, 2012. Retrieved from: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Jk-xqPKOxl4&=&t=39s