Practical Application: Identifying Factors that Affect Ethical Behavior in the Workplace

Instructor: Scott Tuning

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.

Ethics can be defined as doing what's right. The factors that shape ethical behavior vary. Since differences can cause conflict, you will benefit from being able to identify, understand, and demonstrate respect for the sources of ethical formation.

Who Gets to Decide What's Right?

Have you ever heard someone assert that ''not everything that's legal is ethical, and not everything that's ethical is legal?'' That statement gets at the heart of why someone's upbringing, cultural background, and individual values aren't always consistent with our own. It's all too easy to find someone's workplace ethics ''wrong'' because of our own sense of ''right.''

Just as you saw in the lesson Factors that Affect Ethical Behavior in the Workplace, identifying the source of another person's ethics can help us find common ground on what is considered ethical in the workplace. Let's look at a couple of scenarios. As you read them, try to identify the origin or impact of individual ethical formation on a workplace behavior.

Scenario 1: Ethical Bribery

After taking a vacation to the beaches of Vietnam, Tom and Angela decided to relocate to the country and open a business. Their vision for a seaside eatery also included helping the homeless and disabled children they came across. In Vietnam, physical disabilities are taboo, and those who have them are often society's outcasts. Tom and Angela wanted to build a business that would help some of these individuals find an honest and moral way to make a living.

The couple knew it wouldn't be a walk in the park, so they came to the country prepared to face big hurdles. One of their biggest hurdles had a name: Minh. Minh was a local government officer whose ''official'' duty was to provide regulatory oversight of the various tourism-related businesses. In reality, Minh dealt in bribes. He negotiated them, received them, paid them, and made good on the promises for which the bribes were paid. In his world, this wasn't the least bit unusual. It was just the way business got done.

Obviously, coming from a capitalist country, Tom and Angela were initially repulsed by this behavior. In their eyes, it was illegal, unethical, and just plain wrong. The re-education of Tom and Angela was swift and harsh. Minh made certain that nothing happened for Tom and Angela until they played by his rules. After a few weeks of frustration, Tom and Angela came to a decision. A business that helped the disabled and homeless was more important. They accepted and participated in the not-so-secret scheme so that they could get their restaurant open and help disadvantaged people.


  • Was it ethical for Tom and Angela to pay the bribes?
  • Was it ethical for Minh to demand the bribes, or to promulgate the system of bribery as a way to get things done?
  • What are the cultural and/or societal differences that created a gap between what Minh found ethical compared to what Tom and Angela found ethical?

Reflection & Resolution

Questions like ''Was it ethical to...?'' rarely have a single answer. If they did, there would be no need for education on this topic. In this case, Tom and Angela had to re-assess their own ethical formation in light of an entirely different culture. In their home country, bribery is unethical because it is illegal and (arguably) unnecessary since legal protections against unfair practices limit the degree to which bribes are the only way to achieve the desired outcome. This was not true in their new country.

It's also likely that Minh found little or no ethical problem with coordinating bribes. In fact, it's likely that he viewed this as a respectable profession far more than an unseemly hustle. Since laws didn't exist or weren't enforced, Minh saw himself as a ''fixer,'' someone who could help Tom and Angela accomplish what they could never do without him.

In Minh's world, Tom and Angela weren't going to win a battle of bribe-ethics anytime soon. The cultural and societal differences created a condition under which bribery wasn't an unethical crime - it was simply the cost of doing business.

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