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.

10 responses to “Ethics at a cross roads”

  1. One of my biggest frustrations with the field of business ethics has been that it rarely communicates to business people in the language that business people use everyday. Instead, managers are expected to understand Kant’s “moral imperative” or Mill’s “utilitarianism”. Or, too often business-ethics trainers pose very simplistic ethical dilemmas that are not really dilemmas at all, e.g., “Should you steal?” or “Should you cheat?” Ethical dilemmas are much more complex than that. I appreciate your post that recognizes that there are many different perspectives about business ethics. If we’re going to help organizations to be more moral in their operations, than we’d better start speaking their language and about their real-life situations.

  2. this kind is information really helpful to gives info abt various related topic of B.E.

  3. i think busniess ethics is all about the moral aspects related to human behaivour and how can apply it in the business. busniess mainly deals with how to get the profit, and how to make good relation with customer and within the organization. and these can be applied by the study of ethical or maral behaviour of human beings.
    so busniess ethics is some where useful for the busniess organization amongs their workers, employees and the relations with the customer.

  4. Organisation must focus to its employees ethicial values. There should be a environment where the ethical values ara giving the equal prirorty,so that its easy to differentiate right and wrong behaviour. Organisation should have a clear view on its values of ethics

  5. in the business context it isn’t to always to see hlepful “ethics” morality or goodness “the value releted to human conduct.” how does that the individual differ what is the “right thing” to do.

  6. Business ethics mean what is wrong or what is write mean in the any organiszation on there wroking employ is not a always right so ethics is also help for proper way of working and also maintain the better co-ordination and also means maner of attitude

  7. business ethics is provided the specific guidline of improving own productivity&social responcibilities.

  8. My perception is that ethics is a related to human.
    According to me myth is possibility of business ethics. myth this not a wrong way of business ethics. myth is following by human being.This is the maintality & thinking power of every people for every religious. and this is depend atmostphere of places & country.

  9. I tend to approach business ethcis through the approach you have posted for “ethos.” Organizational culture is the framework within which our employees make the daily decisions that tell the world how ethical we are. Without a strong, ethical culture, it is difficult for even the most ethical person to do the right thing, unless it is to leave the company. However, a strong culture does help keep people within certain boundaries. Since my orientation is human resources, I try to help businesses shape their culture through appropriate HR practices. Corporate story telling (communications) and rituals are also important to celebrate and reinfirce the appropriate behaviors.

    This should be an interesting thread. Thanks for posting.


  10. Ethics is concerned with morals, fairness, respect, caring, sharing, no false promises, no lying, cheating, stealing, or unreasonable demands on employees and others, etc. We need a practical approach rather than a philosophical one.

    Business decisions often concern complicated situations which are neither totally ethical nor totally unethical. Therefore, it is often difficult to do the right thing, contrary to what many case studies will have you believe!

    Leaders have to deal with potential conflicts of interest, wrongful use of resources, mismanagement of contracts, false promises and exaggerated demands on resources which include personnel. Is it the seller’s duty to disclose all material facts regarding the product/ service in question or is it the buyer’s responsibility to find out the pros and cons of what he or she is getting into? Should the seller answer each question exactly as it was asked, and ignore some pertinent information? Or should he or she provide a broader answer, which addresses the spirit of the question? Is the buyer responsible for due diligence? This is a gray area.

    Business ethics calls for addressing social problems such as poverty, crime, environmental protection, equal rights, public health and improving education. For free abridged versions of my books on leadership, ethics, teamwork, women in the workforce, sexual harassment and bullying, trade unions, etc. send an e-mail request to

    Maxwell Pinto, Business Consultant and Author.

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