Ethics - How Important Is It in Today's Office?

By Holmquist, Donna | Public Personnel Management, Winter 1993 | Go to article overview

Ethics - How Important Is It in Today's Office?


Holmquist, Donna, Public Personnel Management


Ethics--what is it?

Ethics is defined by the dictionary as a branch of philosophy dealing with values relating to human conduct with respect to the rightness or wrongness of certain actions.

There is a great deal of complexity to the problem of ethics. People perceive things in different ways, but most people agree that ethics involves a lot of common sense. People's ethical standards are often based on values instilled in them in their youth, and in their environmental background.

The importance of ethics in past decades

In 1979, Tulane University Graduate School of Business Administration graduates from the past ten years were polled concerning their attitudes toward business ethics and the role of the business ethics course in their curriculum (Barach & Nicol, 1980). Many of the respondents exhibited strong feelings about ethics in business and the part it plays in business decisions in everyday life. Ninety percent of the respondents agreed strongly that "sound ethics is good business in the long run." There was an indication that the longer a person was in business, the more important ethics appeared to be; and two-thirds indicated they incorporated value issues into decisions they made daily.

In a survey of 2,000 business people (McGuire, 1963), it was revealed that more than two-thirds of the respondents thought a code of ethics would raise the ethical level of business practice, even if it is difficult to enforce. A code of ethics provides a crutch for those who need additional moral strength to bolster their positions.

The importance of ethics today

Time has not diminished the relevance and importance of this topic. Americans today seem to indicate a desire for a change in the way people deal with one another in business and in all aspects of life. The public is getting tired of so many Americans who proclaim that anything that's legal and anything they can get away with is okay, even if it's not the right thing to do. Many people are not collectively happy with the "me, me, me" selfish society and with the results of that philosophy. Because of this observation, many colleges are including courses on ethics in their curriculums.

Different kinds of ethical practices portrayed in the workplace

What examples do employees see? Is the boss completely honest when filling out the expense report? Is the secretary expected to tell a falsehood when the boss doesn't want to talk to the caller? Is it acceptable practice to call in sick and then enjoy a game of golf or a shopping trip ? Are coffee breaks held to a reasonable amount of time or are they stretched to the limit? Are extra copies made when one would suffice? Do supplies end up in the homes of the employees?

All of these are examples co-workers see and often follow. Leaders in a business should be seen as making honest and ethical decisions--trusting what other people do and working with openness.

The importance of a company code of ethics

Codes of ethics have been drawn by business people, ministers, government officials, schools, professors, etc. A code is merely a guideline for those who already possess a basic moral sense. It can help to define the practical, specific, and detailed implications of this basic morality.

Company policy, set forth in formal statements to all employees, can be a useful device for maintaining a good company reputation and can produce an ingrained manner of thinking and acting within the firm which is highly ethical. Business people would like a code of ethics to help them clarify their own values and standards. In many instances, individuals do not know what is ethical, and so feel they need help. In one study which was made (McGuire), it was found that business people attribute significantly higher ethical standards to themselves than they do to their peers. Business people become more ethical as they grow older, and it is hypothesized that this may be due to their greater financial security (McGuire). …

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