Power Distance and Individualism as Cultural Determinants of Ethical Judgments

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ABSTRACT

The effects of power distance and individualism on perceptions of ethical intention were examined using data from New Zealand European and Malaysian Chinese commerce students. The aim was to assess the attitudes of these commerce students towards ethical problems presented in a set of business scenarios. Ethical judgments of both samples were not found to differ significantly across four of the five ethical dilemmas tested. However, New Zealand students considered environmental protection a significantly more important issue than their Chinese counterparts did. Results of the study raise concerns with regard to the interpretation of past findings involving different nationalities and ethnic groups, and argue for the inclusion of other independent measures to assess the cultural characteristics of these samples. Possible problems with the use of Hofstede's (1980) cultural typology are also identified and discussed.

INTRODUCTION

Today's university students will be tomorrow's business managers. As such, they will have a profound impact on both the everyday practice of and the principles governing business. Recognition of this truth by scholars may explain, in part, the proliferation of research regarding the ethical development of university students in general, and business students in particular, over the past 15-20 years. For example, Borkowski and Ugras (1998) uncovered 56 empirical studies concerning the ethical behavior of U.S. business students to include in their meta-analysis--and their review of the literature was restricted to the ten-year period of 1985-1994.

More recently, the increasing globalization of business has inspired a number of cross-cultural studies that have examined the ethical beliefs and decision making of business students in different cultures (e.g., Davis, Johnson, & Ohmer, 1998; Grunbaum, 1997; Nyaw & Ng, 1994; Priem, Worrell, Walters, & Coalter, 1998). Some studies have found meaningful cultural effects. Swinyard, DeLong, and Cheng (1989), for example, found noteworthy differences between the moral decision-making of U.S. and Singaporean business students. More recently, Brody, Coulter, and Mihalek (1998) found significant differences between the ethical perceptions of U.S. and Japanese accounting students to whistle-blowing. Since the subjects had yet to receive any formal workplace training, the authors concluded that the observed differences in ethical perceptions were due to cultural differences.

Other studies, however, do not support the view that culture influences ethical beliefs and decision making. For example, Preble and Reichel (1988), in their study of Israeli and U.S. management students' attitudes towards business ethics, found both groups held relatively high moral standards. More recently, Allmon, Chen, Pritchett, and Forest (1997) found significant agreement with the way Australian, Taiwanese and U.S. students perceive ethical/unethical behavior, suggesting a universality of business ethical perceptions.

Attention has also been given to cross-cultural aspects of ethical standards. Theorists have long suggested that countries with different cultures and values have different perceptions as to what constitutes ethical or unethical behavior (Ferrell & Gresham, 1985; Hunt & Vitell, 1986; Bartels, 1967; McClelland, 1961; England, 1975). However, cross-cultural studies that have examined the ethical standards of business students in different cultures have yielded conflicting results. While some researchers do find ethical standards to vary significantly across different cultures (Tsalikis & LaTour, 1995; Tsalikis & Nwachukwu, 1991; White & Rhodeback, 1992), others have found little disparity (Lysonski & Gaidis, 1991; Whipple & Swords, 1992).

Typically, researchers have relied on nationality as a surrogate for culture, rather than explore more detailed cultural characteristics of respondents in trying to account for differences/similarities in ethical beliefs (McDonald, 2000). …