As a rule, most people have a set of values and principles that help guide them throughout their lives. As an individual becomes educated and because of life’s experiences, however, these rules can change, evolve, and are adapted to help make sense to our own perceptions of reality. In the book Ethics: A Very Short Introduction, Blackburn (2001) contends that human beings in general are ethical animals who judge, evaluate, compare, admire, make claims, and justify their actions (Blackburn, 2001). In most cases, leaders must draw from their own principles and values to help them make the best decision for the organization they represent.
Laws are created to enforce rules and regulations so that there is a model in which citizens can shape their behavior and choices. For example, stop signs at small intersections communicate traffic laws to help people avoid harm. In Business Ethics and Sustainability, Ng’s (2012) research purports that laws provide a starting point and offer the minimum standards to help individuals understand proper and improper behavior. However, these laws are inherently different from morality issues (Ng, 2012). For example, it is not illegal to engage in extra marital affairs, but society deems that this behavior is morally wrong.
Morality is considered a society’s norms and values. Ethics consequently is the identification and analysis of moral values and how they are applicable in any given situation. In a business arena, although personal ethics can help guide decision makers – managers face many issues that require both knowledge and wisdom to help them to analyze the ethical and legal aspects of a situation. In short, today’s leaders must use their personal judgment based on their own moral values and principles to make the best decision for their company. A wrong decision can affect the future success of an organization and the people that rely on the company for their livelihoods.
As each situation rises, employers face making decisions on an ethical course of action they can rely on and in some degree must pull from the rules of right conduct they employ in everyday life. In the book, Ethics and the Conduct of Business, Boatright (2009) suggests that managers need to identify the appropriate level for a decision because ethical problems may have no solution on the level at which they are approached (Boatright, 2009). In other words, sometimes ethical problems can be solved only by displacing them to a different level because some difficult situations cause distress that can only be resolved by looking at some less than perfect response from a lower level.
For example, as a survivor of abuse, when I first entered the workforce as a young adult, I did so from a place of low self-esteem and self-efficacy. At that time, I did not have the tools to make the best choices when questionable situations arose with respect to issues of morality. Because I was conditioned to respond from a place of “survival” in a supporting role, rather than respond with the knowledge and wisdom, of a seasoned leader, I did not have the training to make the best choices. In some cases, rather than do the right thing and report the unethical situations, because of job security I remained silent. However, as I matured and received higher levels of education, I developed healthier levels of confidence and self-esteem. When unethical situations arise now, I am one of the first to expose the situation to help bring about positive change. I realized that by keeping silent, I was only enabling the misconduct of others.
Employers that embrace a Utilitarian approach to ethics with the mindset that the “behavior justifies the means to an end” set themselves up as separatists and create situations that can result in a fatal disaster the kind the ENRON community faced. In that situation, executives believed that in order to continue creating high levels of profit, their illegal and immoral behavior was justified because of their utilitarian views.
In their publication, Business Ethics and Social Responsibility, Ferrell et al. (2013) remind us that values are used to help develop norms that are socially accepted and include integrity, accountability and trust (Ferrell, Fraedrich, & Ferrell, 2013). These are examples of values that help guide people to make better decisions, which in turn build trust from employees, consumers, shareholders, and the public. By adopting high levels of ethics and moral values, people live better lives based on respect, gratitude, and appreciation, while taking responsibility for their actions. In the long run, organizations that adopt ethical practices experience higher levels of success. That in itself is reason enough to engage in a code of ethics that embrace best practice policies.
”Real integrity is doing the right thing, knowing that nobody’s going to know whether you did it or not.” — Oprah Winfrey
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Blackburn, S. (2001). Ethics: a very short introduction. New York, NY: Oxford Press.
Boatright, J. (2009). Ethics and the Conduct of Business (Sixth ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson Education, Inc.
Ferrell, Fraedrich, & Ferrell. (2013). Business ethics and social responsibility (9th ed.). Mason, OH: Cengage Learning.
Ng, T. (2012). Business ethics and sustainability. Toronto, Ontario, Canada: Obiter Dicta.