Ethics at a cross roads

What makes the field of business ethics so interesting and so challenging is that as a term, and as a concept,“business ethics” means so many different things to so many different constituencies.

However, many of these constituencies often don’t communicate well together. The academic side of business ethics is often not seen as a resource for the practitioners. Within companies, business ethics is more often seen as a branch of compliance and legal than it is a partner of organizational behavior. Everyone wants everyone do “the right thing” yet we are often at a loss to define what exactly that right thing to do is.

Another dimension is that the perception of business ethics in the US is different than the assumptions of ethics in many other countries.

How do we make sense of all of these varied elements?

One place to start is by looking at the definitions of “business ethics.”

Ethics is often defined as “that branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct, with respect to the rightness and wrongness of certain actions and to the goodness and badness of the motives and ends of such actions.” (

However, the origin of the word “ethics” comes from the Greek word, “ethos,” which we define as “the fundamental character or spirit of a culture; the underlying sentiment that informs the beliefs, customs, or practices of a group or society; dominant assumptions of a people or period.” (

In the business context it isn’t always helpful to see “ethics” as synonymous with “morality” or “goodness.” Instead, business ethics is more instructive if we look at it as a means to an ends: “the values relating to human conduct.”

In today’s business world, we are interested in understanding why people do what they do. Why do people do good things and why do seemingly good people do bad things.

From my 15 years of experience in helping companies address ethics issues, I see ethics as a function of behavior. Borrowing from the social psychologists, I see ethical behavior as a function of both the person and their environment.

When we look at the person, we look at how does that individual define what is the “right thing” to do. There is not a universal definition and I am hoping to encourage a dialog as to what in fact is the right thing to do and is it objective or conditional upon the circumstances?

The second determinant of ethical behavior is the environment that influences and shapes our perceptions. We will be actively discussing how the environment shapes behavior.

Our goal is to help practitioners be better equipped to create the kinds of cultures they want and need inside their organizations.  Where should an organization be focusing its resources and attention in its attempts to influence employee behavior? On the person by reminding them of their ethical and legal obligations, or on the environment which shapes behavior of “ethical” and “unethical” people alike.

I am encouraging the readers and guest writers in this blog to open the dialog and be active participants in this exciting process.

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