What is Business Ethics?

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Sections of this topic

    Let’s Start With “What is ethics?”

    Simply put, ethics involves learning what is right or wrong, and then doing the right thing — but “the right thing” is not nearly as straightforward as conveyed in a great deal of business ethics literature. Most ethical dilemmas in the workplace are not simply a matter of “Should Bob steal from Jack?” or “Should Jack lie to his boss?”

    (Many ethicists assert there’s always a right thing to do based on moral principle, and others believe the right thing to do depends on the situation — ultimately it’s up to the individual.) Many philosophers consider ethics to be the “science of conduct.” Twin Cities consultants Doug Wallace and John Pekel (of the Twin Cities-based Fulcrum Group) explain that ethics includes the fundamental ground rules by which we live our lives. Philosophers have been discussing ethics for at least 2500 years, since the time of Socrates and Plato. Many ethicists consider emerging ethical beliefs to be “state of the art” legal matters, i.e., what becomes an ethical guideline today is often translated to a law, regulation or rule tomorrow. Values which guide how we ought to behave are considered moral values, e.g., values such as respect, honesty, fairness, responsibility, etc. Statements around how these values are applied are sometimes called moral or ethical principles.

    So What is “Business Ethics”?

    The concept has come to mean various things to various people, but generally it’s coming to know what it right or wrong in the workplace and doing what’s right — this is in regard to effects of products/services and in relationships with stakeholders. Wallace and Pekel explain that attention to business ethics is critical during times of fundamental change — times much like those faced now by businesses, both nonprofit or for-profit. In times of fundamental change, values that were previously taken for granted are now strongly questioned. Many of these values are no longer followed. Consequently, there is no clear moral compass to guide leaders through complex dilemmas about what is right or wrong. Attention to ethics in the workplace sensitizes leaders and staff to how they should act. Perhaps most important, attention to ethics in the workplaces helps ensure that when leaders and managers are struggling in times of crises and confusion, they retain a strong moral compass. However, attention to business ethics provides numerous other benefits, as well (these benefits are listed later in this document).

    Note that many people react that business ethics, with its continuing attention to “doing the right thing,” only asserts the obvious (“be good,” “don’t lie,” etc.), and so these people don’t take business ethics seriously. For many of us, these principles of the obvious can go right out the door during times of stress. Consequently, business ethics can be strong preventative medicine. Anyway, there are many other benefits of managing ethics in the workplace. These benefits are explained later in this document.

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    Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD – Authenticity Consulting, LLC – 800-971-2250
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