Is Business Ethics an Oxymoron? Copyright: Daryl Koehn
I have taught business ethics for ten years, and I would be rich woman today if I had a dollar for every person who has said to me, "Business ethics. Isn't that a contradiction in terms?" Sometimes businesspeople make this comment. More often, though, the skeptics are people outside of business. Those who actually work in business know that business ethics is a serious issue for a number of reasons. Businesses obviously care about the ethics of their managers and employees. Managers who embezzle large sums of money can destroy a firm. Sexual harassment by employees may lead to multi-million dollar legal settlements. A firm may be hit by substantial fines if employees lie to customers, misrepresenting the features or risks of products. Firms may want to maximize profits but they certainly do not want employees who try to line their pockets by whatever means possible. Firms equally care about the ethics of their customers. Retail stores suffer huge losses each year due to shoplifters. Unscrupulous customers buy pieces of clothing, wear them and then return them, thereby depriving stores of deserved revenue. When customers are very abusive, firms may find it difficult to retain employees willing to serve the public. In more general terms, businesses must care about ethics because businesses are part of a human community. Communities are held together by virtues and sound mores. As Aristotle puts it, a person without ethics is more of a wild beast than a human being. We all want to be treated with respect and care. We want to feel we can trust each other. Indeed, it is hard to envision how we could perform routine tasks, much less do business, without a modicum of trust and loyalty. Since we care about virtue, we hold our businesspeople, doctors, lawyers, tradespeople, and others responsible for their behavior. Criminal prosecutions of white-collar workers are increasingly common, a sure sign that, as members of...
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