What is meant by the term "business ethics?"

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ophelious eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Ethics in business are not totally different from ethics when related to human beings.

Definition: Ethics:

  • The basic concepts and fundamental principles of right human conduct, including universal values such as essential equalities of all humankind and of natural rights; of obedience to the law of land, concern for health and safety and for the ecological environment.
  • This is diferent from "morality," which encompasses the questions of right and wrong conduct and choices.

Generally, ethics will involve the following principles plus others:

  • Honesty -- is what I'm saying the truth as I understand it?  Am I making any effort to conceal the truth or color it in a way that benefits me?
  • Integrity -- do I do the things I say I am going to do?  Am I sincere and transparent in my actions and statements?  Can I be counted on to follow through?
  • Fairness -- am I taking into account the rights and needs of others in my decisions?
  • Respect -- am I treating others with dignity and acceptance?

One way I tell my students to view ethics is to take any situation in which a hard decision must be made and imagine the situation and your solution were to be printed in the newspaper for all your friends and family to read.  Would you be comfortable standing up for that decision and defending it, even if unpopular, or would it be embarrassing?  Of course, some people can justify in their own heads reasons for doing the most awful things and are proud of it.

This leads us to your real question, which is specifically about ethics as applied to business.   A business's main goal is to generate money for those that own it. So business ethics involves earning the most money possible while not violating the principles above, yet not holding to the principles of ethics so strongly as to reduce the profit amount.

Here are some examples, though there are many more possible:

  • Where does the company's funding come from?  Is it ethical, say, for a business to help a senator get elected who in turn creates tax breaks for the company?
  • Is the company being environmentally responsible, or is it shipping its waste to third world nations?
  • Is the business being truthful in its advertising?
  • Is the business being fair in its hiring and promotion practices?
  • Are employees treated with value, or are they treated as disposable?
  • Is the business genuine and committed to its longevity or is it focused on unethical short-term profit generation?
  • Is the business engaged in products or services that are repugnant to society at large or that promote lawlessness?
  • Are corporations reporting their earnings fairly and paying proper taxes?
  • Is the company engaged in illegal price fixing, or attempting to drive other businesses out of the market to reduce price competition?

As you can see, business ethics are similar to "people ethics" only specifically applied to questions about business economics.