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Business Ethics and Unethical Practices

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The study of business ethics and its implications for different stakeholders have seen tremendous growth in the past few decades. There has also been a rise in the use and development of codes of ethics and announcements for ethical practices by many firms; however companies are still criticized for their unethical practices at different levels (, 2006). Business ethics, according to the literature has been entrenched with the philosophical details of Ethics (Trevino & Nelson, 1999). Ethics has been defined as ‘the activity of examining the moral standards of a society, and asking how these standards apply to ones life and whether these standards are reasonable’ (Velasquez, 1998; p. 11).


The literature on business ethics is divided on its views about the motivation and reason for businesses to have an ethical dimension. Drawing upon Harrison (2001), there are two major schools of thoughts, firstly those who suggest that firms are profit generating institutions and therefore business ethics is yet another way to attract customers, secondly those who support corporate conscience and intrinsic motivation for the adoption of business ethics. 


Business ethics has been considered very subjective in nature and according to Paul (2001) is considered a function of time and culture. It has been established that with the passage of time business ethics have evolved and also that the cultural values and norms drive business ethics within national and regional boundaries. One of the major studies regarding the national values has been conducted by Hofstede (1983). According to this research, which was only based on four indicators i.e. individualism, power distance, uncertainty avoidance and masculinity, there is a great deal of differences among values across different nations and consequently the business ethics. Globalization combined with standardization has made businesses financially efficient but at the same time poses questions regarding the standardized codes of business ethics across national boundaries.


Vinten (1991) has divided the business ethical issues at different levels i.e. international business, domestic business and professional ethics. At the international level ethical issues include free-masonry and socialism versus capitalism; at domestic level these include religious dimensions, social marketing and ethical education; and lastly at the individual level these include bribery, corruption and data protection (, 2006).


There are many reasons and criticisms for the failure of adoption of ethics in the business world. Firstly, the concept is considered to be overly theoretical and it also negates the basic purpose of any business i.e. to create shareholder’s wealth. Secondly, it has lack of direction and unanimity across different cultures and academic groups. Lastly, it has many inherent unresolved dichotomies that according to Sternberg (1994) make it a case of rejected relativism. 




Harrison, J. (2001), Ethics for Australian Business, Prentice-Hall, French’s Forest


Hofstede, G. (1983), The Cultural Relativity of Organizational Practices and Theories, Journal of International Business Studies, Vol. 14, No. 2, pp.75-89


Papers For You (2006) "S/B/92. What distinguishes ethical from unethical business activity and how significant are the principles of business ethics in modern business?", Available from [17/06/2006]


Papers For You (2006) "S/B/49. 'Should businesses strive to be ethical?' Critically Discuss", Available from [18/06/2006]


Paul, S. (2001), Cultural and Business Ethics, Cross Cultural Management: An international Journal, Volume 8 No. 1, pp 22-35


Sternberg, E. (1994), Relativism rejected: the possibility of transnational business ethics, in Hoffman, W.M., Kamm, J.B., Frederick, R.E., Petry, E.S. Jr (Eds), National Conference on Business Ethics. Proceedings from the 9th Conference on Business Ethics Sponsored by the Centre for Business Ethics at Bentley College, Quorum Books, New York, NY, pp.143-50


Trevino, L.K., Nelson, K.A. (1999), Managing Business Ethics: Straight Talk about How to Do It Right, 2nd ed., J. Wiley & Sons, New York, NY


Velasquez, M.G. (1998), Business Ethics: Concepts and Cases, 4th ed., Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ


Vinten, G. (1991), Business Ethics: Busybody or Corporate Conscience?, Managerial Auditing Journal, Volume 5, Number 2, pp. 123-144

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