Scott has been a faculty member in higher education for over 10 years. He holds an MBA in Management, an MA in counseling, and an M.Div. in Academic Biblical Studies.
A 2015 study surveyed more than 300 companies in an effort to characterize how companies created and applied ethical policies. The result indicated that many businesses had ethics policies, but the application and enforcement was minimal or non-existent. Let's survey some examples of business ethics and how they are put into practice by organizations in the real world.
Immanuel Kant's deontological ethics, sometimes referred to as the ethics of duty, is the theory that actions are not right or wrong based on their result but rather because they are inherently good or evil. The computer component manufacturer Intel provides an example of deontological ethics in business through an unusual human resources practice that allows some employees to rotate through up to five of the company's departments every 16 to 24 months. This program is provided for the sole purpose of being good to employees and a sincere desire on the part of the company to see its workers happy. The company received no direct benefit from the program.
Jeremy Bentham's utilitarianism has its foundations in the belief that being ethical means to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people. Several years ago, a pharmaceutical company released the drug Accutane as a means for treating severe acne in young men. The drug was very effective, but it was also known to cause life-threatening birth defects if pregnant women were exposed to the drug.
The ethical principle of utilitarianism states that is ethically acceptable to release a drug like Accutane with appropriate warning. The number of young men who will experience relief from the skin condition will outweigh the few cases in which an individual will fail to adhere to the warning. All pharmaceuticals have side effects, but utilitarianism provides moral permission for their distribution anyway because the sum of their contributions are argued to be far greater than the negative outcomes they cause.
Morality ethics describe the conditions and actions that people perceive as being good or bad because of their own internal values. In the last few years, the pharmaceutical company Pfizer has taken a moral position that their corporate mission is life rather than death. Although lethal injection is a legal form of judicial homicide in numerous states, Pfizer has taken the position that selling drugs for executions violates their corporate values. Pfizer's decision to refuse the sale of drugs for lethal injection is an example of moral ethics because this business decision is the result of the personal value of Pfizer's leaders.
The financial giant Goldman Sachs promoted the natural right of marriage equality - even when doing so hurt their business. The company announced in 2012 that they would not distinguish between heterosexual and homosexual marriages in providing benefits to employees. This public support for marriage equality did not come without a price. Following the announcement, Goldman Sachs said the company lost a client with a very large account because of the announcement. Natural rights ethics can be defined as the right of individuals to be treated equally regardless of status.
So far, most of our examples of applied ethics have examined organizations that display positive characteristics. However, virtue ethics, or the ethic system that values character and integrity, may be understood by looking at a situation when its absence was detrimental. In general, the last place people would expect to see a disgraceful lack of character would be in a faith community, but a few rogue priests made choices to put the lack of integrity in full view of the public. The sex abuse scandals that have plagued the Catholic Church and the overt shielding of pedophiles by an isolated but powerful group of leaders, represents the outcome when virtue ethics are ignored and people of dubious moral character are placed in positions of trust within an organization.
In the context of business ethics, justice ethics promotes treating individuals in a fair and equal manner unless there is a valid reason not to do so. In an interesting example of justice, many of the countries largest symphony orchestras practice a strict form of justice when selecting musicians for employment in their ranks. In order to ensure that everyone who auditions for a paid role in the orchestra is evaluated fairly, judges do not see any of the candidates who are trying out. Rather, the selection panel sits behind a curtain and only listens to the candidate play. This practice demonstrates justice because it removes the potential for bias on any criteria other than those that are appropriate.
For our last example, we will look at a website. Salesforce.com provides an excellent example of a corporate ethic of care. The company formed the Salesforce.com Foundation for the purpose of facilitating the organization's philanthropy. The foundation has donated millions of dollars to nonprofit organizations and educational institutions in the form of grants. At a more personal level, the organization provides employees six paid days off per year (outside of their regular paid time off) in order to volunteer or otherwise provide service to a charitable organization. Neither of these practices result in any benefit for the company, and the practice exists solely to demonstrate care for their community.
In summary, numerous ethical models can be applied to business practices. Many companies have a code of ethics, or an ethics policy that details one or more models that the company intends to follow. Unfortunately, there is often a significant gap between ethical policy and ethical practice. Using the previous examples as a guide, individuals and corporations can model their own ethics policies after successful companies who have already proved the application of certain ethics theories as a viable business practice.
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