- Identify the relevance of law to business disciplines.
- Understand the relevance of law to the study of business.
- Identify how the rule of law protects people from harmful business practices.
Foundational courses taken by undergraduate business students usually include accounting, finance, management, and marketing. An understanding of the legal environment of business is relevant—indeed, essential—to functioning well within each of those disciplines. Additionally, a solid understanding of the legal environment can help avoid liability or at least minimize risk. In business, it is not enough to comport yourself and your business ethically. You must also ensure that you understand the legal environment in which you are working. Therefore, it is important to you, to your employer, and to all the other people who may be relying on your business expertise—such as your employees and your family—to understand the legal environment. Such an understanding will help you avoid or lessen the likelihood of liability exposure, enabling you to manage your business affairs successfully, unhampered by unmanaged legal liability risks. This section provides some examples of how law affects specific business disciplines.
During the last several years, accountants have been in the limelight due to culpable behavior of some members of the profession during well-known business scandals, such as Enron. Largely as a result of the fallout from the Enron case, Congress passed the Sarbanes-Oxley Act (SOX) of 2002, which imposed stringent oversight requirements on accounting and auditing firms. The requirements seek to ensure competence, compliance with security laws, and conduct consistent with generally accepted accounting principles.
Of course, the Enron scandal and SOX were both fairly dramatic examples of how law can affect accounting. Other ways in which law affects this discipline are through regulation. For example, the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission’s (SEC) mission is to protect investors and to maintain a fair market, among other things. Accordingly, the SEC enforces accounting and auditing policies to allow investors to make decisions based on accurate information. The SEC pursues charges of accounting fraud and oversees private regulation of the accounting profession.
The law also affects finance. Like accounting professionals, many who work in finance are also regulated by the SEC. The SEC is concerned that investors receive accurate information to make investment decisions. Moreover, the SEC enforces prohibitions against insider trading and pursues claims of other types of securities fraud, such as Ponzi schemes.
Similarly, several statutes protect consumers in financial transactions. For example, the Truth in Lending Act (TILA) requires lenders to accurately provide information concerning the costs involved in offers of credit. TILA and its corresponding Regulation Z are administered by federal banking agencies.
Law also affects those in management. For instance, knowledge of employment law is essential to those in human resources. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act prohibits discrimination related to protected characteristics in hiring and employment practices. Those in management also must be aware of the potential liability that demands on employees might create. For example, in Oregon, McDonald’s was found to be liable for injuries resulting when an off-duty, off-premises worker fell asleep while driving.Faverty v. McDonald’s, 892 P.2d 703 (Or. Ct. App. 1995). The employee had worked three shifts during a twenty-four-hour period. The court held that employers have a duty to avoid conduct that creates a foreseeable risk of harm to others.
If your field is marketing, the law also relates to your work. Marketers must be particularly attuned to tort law, consumer protection law, and intellectual property law. For example, to avoid charges of libel, those in advertising need to take care not to defame another person, business, or product. It might be tempting to do so, especially if you were engaged in serious competition with another company that sold a similar product. Likewise, marketers must take great care not to engage in deceptive advertising practices, lest their employer run afoul of the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC) policies or the FTC Act. Additionally, marketers must be aware of other people’s intellectual property to avoid copyright or trademark infringement in their own work product.
These are a few examples of how the law relates to specific business disciplines. Of course, this is just an overview. It is incumbent on each business professional to become familiar with the legal environment in his or her profession. Employers may provide training regarding legal environment issues, such as anti-sexual harassment training or anti–insider trading training, but ultimately, becoming familiar with the legal environment is each person’s individual responsibility. Remember that a defense of “I didn’t know the law!” is no defense at all.
The law is relevant to every business discipline. Minimizing liability exposure is a primary concern of business, and an understanding of the legal environment relevant to each disciplinary perspective helps business practitioners minimize their risk of incurring liability to themselves or to their employers.
- Which business discipline is your favorite? Find a newspaper article that illustrates a legal problem pertaining to that discipline that could have been avoided with a better understanding of the legal environment of business.
- How can employers use knowledge of the legal environment of business to minimize liability exposure? Identify three concrete ideas.
- How can employers stay current with the legal environment of business? For example, how would other employers in Oregon find out about the case of the off-duty, off-premises worker mentioned in this section? If you were an employer in Oregon, how might this case change your business practices?
- Do you think that if employers train their employees how to behave on the job, those employers should be absolved from legal liability resulting from employees’ actions? For example, imagine that an employer provides training to its employees regarding how to avoid sexual harassment in the workplace, but an employee ignores the training and sexually harasses a colleague. Should the employer bear liability in that situation? Why or why not?