In the Beginning: Ethical Perspectives of Business and Non-Business College Freshmen

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ABSTRACT

Recent scandals involving the actions of some prominent U.S. corporate leaders have reignited discussions concerning ethical behavior in business. These events have brought more attention to post-secondary schools of business that educate business professionals. The current study explores whether there are differences among college students at the beginning of their studies, prior to any post-secondary educational transformation. The central focus is whether there are ethical differences among freshman college students majoring in business disciplines compared to their non-business major counterparts. Results from a survey of several hundred first semester undergraduate freshmen in the United States indicate that with minor exceptions, the two groups have similar histories of ethical behavior and view the severity of various questionable behaviors similarly. Differences between the two groups concerning self-reported knowledge of moral perspectives and ethical issues, as well as the significance of various influences on students' ethical development are identified.

INTRODUCTION

In the last decade stories of questionable, and at times criminal, corporate activities have dominated the U.S. business press. Beyond the most well-known case involving Enron Energy, Cendant's "creative earnings," Archer Daniels Midland's price-fixing, Bankers Trust's leveraged derivatives and use of customer funds, and LongTerm Capital's high-risk bets with others' funds are all examples of unethical and/or illegal actions by North American managers. We can also cite Rite-Aid and Wal-Mart, who have been profiled for their charge-back policies that leave suppliers confused and temporarily or permanently underpaid. Sears Roebuck's disregard for bankruptcy laws, debtors' rights, and creditor priorities led to a $63 million fine-the largest in U.S. bankruptcy law history (Jennings, 1999). More recently, one can look to the U.S. Department of Education's administration of student loans and practices tied to preferred lenders as well as significant violations of the honor codes at several U.S. Military Academies.

Ethics represent the moral principles and values that govern the actions and decisions of an individual or group (Lazniak and Murphy, 1993). Results of public opinion studies indicate that 58% of American adults rate the ethical standards of business executives as only "fair" or "poor," 90% believe white-collar crime is "very common" or "somewhat common," and 76% say the lack of ethics in businesspeople contributes to plummeting societal moral standards (Krone, 1997; Dallas Morning News, 1998; Walker Information, 1998).

In the essay, "The Myth of the Amoral Business," DeGeorge (1999) discusses a commonly held view of American business. One of DeGeorge's major assertions is that the American public does not view businesspeople as unethical or immoral, but instead, as being amoral due to the fact that ethical considerations are often seen as inappropriate in business situations. "Business is not structured to handle questions of values and ethics, and its managers have usually not been trained in business schools to do so," (DeGeorge, 1999, p. 7). The re-examination of this line of reasoning has begun as a result of three significant societal trends: (1) more reporting of scandals and the public reaction to these reports; (2) organizing of consumerists, environmentalists, and other socially-conscious groups, and (3) emerging corporate codes of ethical conduct and ethics programs in addition to ethics conferences, and magazine and newspaper articles on the subject (DeGeorge, 1999). Although all three of these trends are important to the understanding of business ethics, the first two lie beyond the scope of the present paper. A brief account of the third, the corporate ethics movement and its impact on American society, follows.

THE CORPORATE ETHICS MOVEMENT

Prior to the 1960s, business ethics were discussed in U. …