Attitudes Toward Codes of Ethics: The Effects of Corporate Misconduct by Spero C. Peppas Abstract Recent news of corporate misconduct at Arthur Andersen, Enron, WorldCom, etc., has focused attention on ethics in business. Government, business, educational institutions, as well as professional organisations have had to rethink ways of addressing this issue. This article presents the findings of a study of attitudes toward business codes of ethics. The attitudes of Master’s-level US business students at two different points in time, before and after recent reports of corporate misconduct, are compared to see what changes had occurred, to see whether these changes were linked to the disclosures of unethical corporate conduct, and to examine whether taking a course in ethics had an effect on attitudes. Introduction The mention of “Arthur Andersen”, “Enron”, and “WorldCom”, names that once led to conversations about success and global business savvy, now conjures up images of greed and unethical behaviour. The scandals surrounding these companies, along with a pervading perception of a lack of ethics on the part of business leaders, have had a direct effect on businesses’ ability to compete, create jobs, and help pull the US economy out of its economic slump (Hollinger, 2002). Despite the recent attention directed toward the unethical behaviour of the leaders of these companies, the issue of business ethics, a phrase called by some an oxymoron (Rutland, 2002), is not new. Businesses, professional organisations, as well as many universities have, for many years, attempted to address the issue of ethics in business. The stance of many academicians has been that these types of questionable behaviours begin even before individuals are forced to make “realworld” business decisions. That is, students used to seeing unethical behaviour on the part of many role models, no longer show a disinclination toward cheating and academic dishonesty (Kidwell, 2001). Universities have approached this issue, and have attempted to promote ethical behaviour in business, by requiring business students to take a course in ethics or by including ethics as a part of other courses. In fact, AACSB International (1998), a prestigious accrediting body for schools of business, requires that the institutions it accredits address the issue of ethics in at least one of these two methods. The approach of many professional associations, on the other hand, has been to create a code of ethical standards for individuals working in that field. In July 2002, as a direct result of the Enron debacle, the Sarbanes-
Ph.D., is Professor of International Business and Director of the Center for International Business Relations at Mercer University in Atlanta, Georgia, USA. He has taught in the US and Europe where he has received numerous teaching awards. He has served as Marketing Specialist for the United Nations and the ILO as well as for the governments of Senegal and Benin in developing small and medium-sized businesses. His research and consulting focus on international marketing and management issues.
Volume 26 Number 6 2003
Attitudes Toward Codes of Ethics
Oxley Act went into effect in the US as a legal impediment to corporate misconduct (Livingston and Braunschweig, 2002). This law requires that companies have a specialised code of ethics for financial officers. While the law is aimed at public companies, it sends a “corporate reform” message to all companies to establish or reassess their organisations’ codes of ethics (Hollinger, 2002). For this top-down directive to be effective, however, those working in organisations must buy into the notion that codes are worthwhile. Significance and Objective This study examines attitudes toward codes of ethics, both before and after news reports of recent corporate misconduct, of two groups of US Master’s-level business students enrolled in evening university programmes...