Business ethics: changing the misconceptions

By Noor Fadillah Binti Jaafar, Lecturer, School of Business

Ethics impacts many fields: it is not just business per se including medicine, government, and science, to name a few. One of the important ethics component is Business Ethics itself. Whenever business ethics is raised, most people immediately focus on corruption and bribery. While this is a critical result of unethical behaviour, the concept of business ethics and in the context of global business ethics is much broader. It brings major influences on how business managed their human resources, social responsibility, and the environment. Usually, students are given real-world examples of issues they discuss in class to determine where it stands on the ethics scale. In learning business ethics, according to Maclagan and Snell (1992), what is needed is an emphasis on the real-life situations or actual experiences of practising employees, administrators and managers where students must be able to apply moral reasoning and develop skill in ethical reasoning (Brinkmann, and Sims, 2001). These areas of business’ real-world examples or real-life situations usually are the emphasis of student’s perceptions of ethical, moral, and socially responsible behaviour.

Study in moral psychology has found the belief that one’s ethics are fully formed and immutable by the time one enters college or begins a job is a false assumption. It is important to understand that moral judgement develops throughout childhood and young adulthood. This development involved a very complex process of social interaction with peers, parents and other significant persons, and it continues at least throughout adulthood. Research has shown various evidence in supporting the argument that ethics can be taught. James Weber of Marquette University (1993) found that teaching ethical awareness and reasoning to business-school students can help their ethical reasoning, although the improvements are not always long-term. Given that most people enter professional education programs and corporations during young adulthood, the opportunity to influence their moral reasoning clearly exists.

Business ethics can and do shape the development of a student’s ethical values and behaviour. As this particular course facilitate learning, growth and development in students, business ethics help to improve themselves to become more effective and efficient leaders and managers. In fact, young adults in their twenties and thirties particularly college and university students enrolled in moral development educational programs have been found to advance in moral reasoning even more than other individuals. In other words, an overwhelming number of studies accentuate that ethics education significantly increase students’ ethical awareness, reasoning, sensitivity, judgement, knowledge, perspective, and personal values (Canary et al. 2014).

Ethical behaviour relies on more than good character. Although good upbringing may provide a kind of moral compass that can help the young individual determine the right direction and then follow through on a decision to do the right thing, it’s not the only factor determining ethical conduct.  In the complexity of today’s society, young individuals like students need additional guidance. They can be helped to recognize the ethical dilemmas that are likely to arise in their jobs as well as the rules, laws, and norms that apply in that context. They also can learn reasoning strategies that can be used to arrive at the best decision. They also can grasp an understanding of the complexities of organizational life that can conflict with one’s desire to do the right thing. With business currently running on a global scale, more managers are finding themselves facing ethical challenges and having to resolve the ethical dilemma whenever it concerns of their organization. Exposure of unethical business practices, such as Wells Fargo or Foxconn scandals coming to light and their effects impacting citizens in all walks of life somehow highlight that teaching ethics should be a top priority in more business courses.

If leading business activities with ethical conduct is a challenge in one’s own culture, imagine how the difficulties may increase if the culture or language is foreign.  It is important to note here that there are differences in how much importance cultures place on specific ethical behaviours. What others perceive wrong or unacceptable may seem okay for others. For example, bribery remains widespread in many countries, and while people may not accept it, they admit it as a norm for some who does it. Young individuals like students need to be taught about the ethical conduct of business in different cultures as well as about the broader organizational issues concerning whether and how to conduct business in foreign nations, and how to guide employees working in a global business environment.

At the beginning of the 2000s, people have started demanding more accountability from business leaders. Educating future leaders is the first step that should be taken to enforce the idea of following ethical business route. The assumption of a business organization’s only responsibility was to make money is degrading and it should be discarded right away. However, it is unfair not to point out that there are ethically organization. Infosys or Plamil Foods just to name a few examples is perceived as an organization for having good corporate governance and social responsibility initiatives. Most of the time ethical organization conduct is influenced and controlled by the good environment in work settings, by leaders, managers, and the entire cultural context. As a result, it is imperative to highlight that both educational institutions and work organizations can and do have an opportunity to teach young people about ethics and to guide them in an ethical direction.

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