An important component of professional development, ethics, should be considered by students preparing for careers in any area—retailing and apparel merchandising are no exceptions. Ethics is the practice of what is “right.” It is generally agreed that people know the difference between what is right and what is wrong. During the process of social development, children learn to abide by a series of rules that govern their behavior. Well-adjusted adults continue to respond and react to the standards dictated by the society in which they live. Spike Lee effectively coined the phrase, and he along with other popular advertising and media campaigns have encouraged us to “do the right thing.” In the professional arena, discussions of ethics have become frequent and employees’ conduct is carefully and increasingly scrutinized today.
Santa Clara University’s Markkula Center for Applied Ethics provides an Internet site (http://www.scu.edu/ethics) that describes how the concept of ethics is often associated with feelings, religion, and the law. These associations, though, are potentially erroneous. When led only by feelings, people are as likely to make unethical choices that “feel good” as they are to choose the course that is “right.” Although religions support ethical conduct in their members, ethics are not exclusive to religious people. Cultural perspective and religious beliefs can present conflicts with respect to ethics among and between people from different backgrounds. Laws, although they present behavior standards, do not always present standards that are ethical. Consider the case of pre–Civil War slavery laws as an example of unethical laws.
What, then, does it mean to be ethical? An ethical individual is one who avoids behaviors that are morally wrong. Cheating, stealing, lying, and murder are universally considered to be wrong. On the other hand, ethical individuals strive to behave in a manner that endorses virtues, including honesty and respect for others. Virtuous behaviors are universally considered to be right.
An awareness of the role of ethics in a business environment is crucial as one prepares for and enters a career. According to Michael Bugeja (1994), nationally acclaimed author and ethicist, “Ethics are easy when nothing is at stake; the difficulty is learning to live with ambiguity.” One constant of life is ambiguity, and successful individuals must learn to live with the uncertainty of events that will affect them. We can, however, prepare ourselves to be better able to cope with conflict and uncertainty by exploring our own values and determining the comfort levels we associate with certain actions. When faced with ethical dilemmas, or “situations which cause internal conflict in considering what is the ‘right’ thing to do” (Lee, Weber, & Knaub, 1994, p. 24; Knaub, Weber, & Russ, 1994), individuals must rely on their personal sets of values, their life experiences, their feelings and emotional biases, the social context of the situation, and external influences such as parents and peers as they seek to resolve the dilemmas.
Just as ignorance is no excuse for the law, individuals are expected to perform up to the standards established by employers. Most companies provide a written set of guidelines to their employees containing operating procedures, including those for events such as emergencies and loss prevention, guidelines for dress and appearance, and standards for conduct. Individual employees are responsible for familiarizing themselves with the company’s rules, and are held accountable to follow them. Ethical behavior requires that an employee live up to the standards set by an employer. Box 8.1 provides a listing of typical company guidelines.
Many rules, or company standards, are objective. In other words, one can define easily when behaviors follow or break rules. It is the responsibility of employees to be familiar with the expectations of their employers to avoid conflict when making decisions regarding behaviors. For example, it is wrong to steal from the company, it is wrong to falsify documents, and it is wrong to dress contrary to the established dress code.
Unfortunately, there are many subjective situations in which rules or standards must be interpreted and personal opinion will vary with respect to the degree of “rightness” or “wrongness” associated with a given action. Is it wrong to take home pens or pencils from work? Is it wrong to “fudge” your timesheet when you are late— even if you stay later to make up the work? Is it wrong to make a “fashion statement” even though your appearance violates company dress policy? Is it wrong to violate company policy if you are satisfying a customer or client? Is it wrong to put your own money in the store cash register at the end of the day so that the till is balanced? Do you have a responsibility to speak up when you observe unethical behavior—even if you won’t be rewarded for doing so? As individuals, people respond differently to any given stimulus, and this contributes to unique opinions and actions in situations and often to conflict. Experience, culture, religion, family relationships, generational roles, and individual value systems all contribute to one’s ethical base. Thus, judgments about what constitutes ethical behavior differ. Most of us, however, will at one time in our working lives be faced with an ethical dilemma—a situation in which the best course of action is not obvious (Box 8.2).
Individual judgments with respect to ethical behavior are directly related to individual value systems. One must be familiar with one’s own personal values in order to make clear and rational judgments regarding ethics. Values are learned. Children adopt values that have been taught, consciously or not, by family members and others in their near environments. Value systems are shaped as individuals develop their personalities, and are nurtured and reinforced by the responses one receives in response to actions. Actions such as cheating and lying may be rewarded with success, power, and other positive reinforcements or may be negatively reinforced via punishment, failure, and exclusion. Personal experiences in conjunction with responses to behaviors result in decidedly varied value systems. Although there is much debate over the appropriateness of teaching values, it is clear that without a strong value system sound, well-informed, and courageous decisions in the face of ethical dilemmas cannot be made.
Michael Bugeja introduced the concept of moral absolutes in his book Living Ethics (1996). He presented the ideas of Christina Hoff Sommers (1993), who noted that there are some truths that are not personal judgments, but rather truths accepted by all people as clearly right or clearly wrong. These clear standards are considered to be moral absolutes. Included in her list of moral absolutes are truths such as, “it is wrong to mistreat a child,” “it is wrong to humiliate someone,” “it is wrong to torment an animal,” “it is wrong to think only of yourself,” “it is wrong to steal, to lie, to break promises,” “it is right to be considerate and respectful of others,” and “it is right to be charitable and generous.” Bugeja added to Sommers’s moral absolutes, “it is wrong to prejudge others based on physical or racial features,” and “it is wrong to treat human beings like objects or property.”
In order to make decisions rooted in ethics, personal values must be developed that are acceptable to those in one’s immediate environment. The environment could be a family, social group, or place of employment. The organizational culture—a set of values, traditions, and customs that defines and directs employee behavior— should be explored by potential employees to clarify workplace expectations. In a professional setting, one’s values must be adequately defined so that ethical decisions can be made with confidence. When decisions are made about employment options, it is helpful to keep in mind that the interview process is a two-way street. You should strive to find a workplace that has an organizational culture that dovetails well with your own ethical base.
In environments where people interact together, unique problems that do not adhere perfectly to the “rules and regulations” are bound to occur. It is within these circumstances that one must rely on one’s previously developed ethical base to arrive at acceptable and appropriate decisions. Eight categories of ethical dilemmas have been identified as commonly experienced by human science professionals (Lee, Weber, & Knaub, 1994). In order of frequency, these are lack of professionalism in colleagues, social issues, job-related issues, confidentiality, academic issues, lack of professionalism in students, research issues, and sexual misconduct. Although categorized as ethical dilemmas encountered specifically by human science professionals, these situations are typical of a diverse selection of professional environments and should be considered by prospective professionals (see Box 8.2).
Ethics are approached in a variety of ways, depending on the circumstances surrounding a given situation (Box 8.3). The moral absolutes mentioned earlier are examples of the so-called virtue approach to ethics. Using this approach, ethical behavior is equated with virtuous behavior. As ethics are applied to larger groups of people, particularly when ethics are tied to policy making, the utility approach (also called utilitarian or utilitarianism) is often applied. This approach requires a comparison of benefits to harms, with the ethical choice being the one that provides the greatest benefit with the least amount of harm for most people. Similarly, the common good approach seeks to identify as ethical the choice that advances the common good. Additional approaches to ethics include the fairness approach and the rights approach. The fairness approach focuses on the need to treat members of a group fairly unless there is a moral reason for disparity. The rights approach relates to fundamental human rights (which may differ among cultures) and seeks to identify the choice that respects individuals and their rights to be respected and treated fairly and equally.
When faced with an ethical dilemma, one should take time to evaluate the situation, consider all sides of the given issue, and refer to appropriate ethical codes when available. Application of a specific approach to ethics may help to focus an appropriate decision. Although there are generally no “right” or “wrong” responses to ethical dilemmas, some solutions have more (or less) merit than others. To further complicate the ethics issue, one must be prepared to realize that rewards for ethical behavior are often not immediate. In fact, when unethical behavior is prevalent, ethical behavior may be associated with negative short-term feedback. Because attitudes related to ethics are rooted in value systems, the only reward for ethical behavior may be the personal satisfaction associated with doing the right thing.
A case study approach is an effective way to go about resolving an ethical dilemma. The case study method of problem solving works well in situations in which more than one possible solution exists, and there is not necessarily a “right” versus a “wrong” solution (Granger, 1996; Rabolt & Miller, 1997; Silverman, Welty, & Lyons, 1992). The case study approach provides a system for organizing information about a problem and presenting alternative solutions to the problem that can be compared. A case study problem-solving approach requires that first the main issue, or conflict, be identified. Second, the circumstances contributing to the dilemma should be identified. Third, several alternative solutions should be developed, with advantages and disadvantages of each alternative being considered. Finally, in light of all considerations and with respect of the “rules,” the solution should be reached. A considerable investment of time, for both research of the situation and thoughtful contemplation, should be devoted to successfully resolve ethical issues.
As you work through ethical dilemma cases, you should first identify whether ethical dilemmas actually exist. To be appropriately prepared to make this determination, you should be familiar with policies of your work environment, should consider what course of action is fair to all parties, and should explore your “gut reaction” to the situation. There may be specific guidelines stipulating appropriate actions and behavior of personnel. It is wise to refer to these guidelines when considering alternative decisions. Furthermore, if one employee ends up with an unfair advantage over other employees—in terms of preferential treatment by management, opportunities for career advancement, or ability to be productive while selling—overall productivity in the work environment is compromised. First reactions to situations often provide a base for further exploration, although they should not be the only consideration given to potential dilemmas. Gut reactions should be given merit; if a situation seems wrong, it probably is. Although no new employee wants to bring every decision before a mentor or manager, such people are excellent resources when particularly difficult situations present themselves. Often, it is helpful to think through a problem and seek advice from a respected person in authority before any action is taken. The J.C. Penney Business Ethics Policy offers excellent advice: “When in doubt, ask.” The CD-ROM that accompanies this book provides opportunities for you to work through case studies pertaining to ethical dilemmas.
Once it has been determined that some choice needs to be made, a set of alternative choices should be identified. As these choices are identified, their merits and consequences should be considered. Some questions that should be considered as the process of decision-making progresses are:
For more information about the process of ethical decision making, you may wish to review the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics at Santa Clara University Web site at http://www.scu.edu/ethics.
The ability to seek information when faced with an ethical dilemma is invaluable. You can save yourself a considerable amount of stressful contemplation if you seek information and ask relevant questions. What are the circumstances surrounding the situation at hand? How will morale of company employees be affected by the actions that are taken? These and other questions will lead you to a better understanding of the situations you will face. Sufficient information is necessary to develop creative solutions to dilemmas. Considering the facts of the situation, you will be better prepared to present compromises that create outcomes that are fair to all employees and in the best interest of your company.
In a business environment, the temptation of individuals to violate ethical rules is often strong due to the relationship between unfair play and profit. Profit itself is not unethical, but behaviors exhibited by individuals seeking to achieve profit may be. Companies that condone employees who capitalize on an unfair advantage, such as stockbrokers who maneuver trades based on inside information or designers who unscrupulously secure information about a competitor’s upcoming line, may reap short-term profits. These profits, however, arrive at the expense of violating ethical standards, potentially damaging the firm’s reputation and in some cases incurring legal retribution.
Employees must be aware of the expectations of their employers. Employers expect their employees to live up the expectations set forth. Situational dilemmas that arise with profit as a leading motivator for action should be carefully considered. Although companies expect employees to make decisions resulting in the highest possible profit margins, individual employees must remember that they alone are responsible for and must answer to decisions that they have made. Companies further expect that their “good names” will be preserved by all employees. Dr. Laura Schlessinger, a licensed marriage and family counselor, internationally syndicated radio host, and author, encourages her audience to consider, if viewed retrospectively, the choices they wish they would have made. Her approach encourages consideration of a perspective that does not necessarily provide immediate gratification, but allows one to determine the extent to which a decision involves one’s character and conscience. In her book How Could You Do That?!: The Abdication of Character, Courage, and Conscience (1996), Dr. Schlessinger describes the situation of a woman who was distressed at witnessing racial discrimination among her coworkers at a department store. The woman’s ethical dilemma—the decision about whether to speak up and voice her disapproval—was further complicated by her knowledge that doing so would likely jeopardize her career with the company.
After speaking to you, I went back into work and spoke with my supervisor. I told her I would not “sell out” and look the other way when inappropriate behavior or injustices were displayed by her and the other executives. I also told her that I felt I had an obligation as a supervisor to set an example for my crew. I also went in and spoke with my personnel manager. During our conversation, I told him “I am not going to sell out.”
The next day, when I arrived at work, I was asked to report to the store manager’s office. I was given a Phase I warning notice as the first step in disciplinary action. My supervisor justified this action with examples of hearsay and refused to tell me who my accusers were.
However, I am not writing you to say, “poor me.” I am writing to say, “thank you.” You helped me to realize I would not feel wonderful if I looked the other way. I would not earn respect from my co-workers and crew if I jumped on the executive’s abuse band wagon. I now realize I have a more active conscience than I gave myself credit for. And now I know, I would not and could not sell out at any job just to have a paycheck.
I must admit, I was angry, hurt, and scared. I needed this job to have medical benefits and to work around my school schedule. What I didn’t need from this job was the abuse and power-trip displayed by four of the six executives at my store.
So, again, I want to thank you for NOT teaching me: How To Sell Out. (pp. 70–71)
One’s comfort level with the ethical environment supported by one’s employer is an important measure to consider. Success and happiness can be found in very different ways, and personal values are directly related to the feelings of contentment an individual will find in any given situation. Young professionals should be aware that company environments and collective views regarding ethics differ just as individual value systems and personal ethical codes differ.
Power is a phenomenon that affects the environment in which decisions are made. In a business environment, the relative power one possesses is typically related to one’s role as a supervisor or subordinate. Obviously, supervisors possess power over subordinate employees. Thus, one may likely believe his or her professional position and potential for growth to be at stake when actions and decisions do not reflect those of the supervisor. Herein lies the dilemma between power and ethics.
Supervisors, managers, and leaders in professional situations possess power over the employees who depend on them for evaluations, promotions, wage increases, and recommendations. Along with this power, such professionals must accept the responsibility not to abuse the power associated with their positions. In fact, the roles and responsibilities associated with both supervisors and subordinates should be carefully considered. Upcoming executives can practice good leadership ethics through responsible decision making. People in positions of power should be aware of the importance of setting a good example; theirs will be the standard to which subordinates compare their own actions.
Although employees have the responsibility to perform according to established standards within the company and to follow the direction given by the supervisor, subordinates should make certain that any conflicts between these two directives are recognized and resolved. Virtually all companies have specific policies regulating the relationships of supervisors and subordinates. Specifically, companies address issues such as discrimination, sexual harassment, and consensual relationships. Some companies prohibit two members of an immediate family from working together. Most companies discourage romantic relationships between employees, particularly among supervisors and subordinates.
Harassment of fellow employees, most often instigated by a supervisor or employee with greater power in the business organization than the victim, is particularly nonproductive in the work environment. Harassment may take the form of unwanted physical, verbal, visual, or sexual behavior directed against another because of his or her gender, race, age, religion, or disability. Most instances of harassment are illegal as well as unethical, but because of its intimidating and potentially embarrassing nature, victims often suffer through the abuse rather than report it and seek reprieve. Employees, especially executives, have the responsibility to prevent workplace harassment by setting good examples and refusing to tolerate unethical behavior. Individuals who hold positions of power over others must be aware that when workplace ethics become problematic, the supervisor is inevitably in the role of the person who “should have known better.”
Figure 8.1 presents an empowerment exercise designed by Michael Bugeja (1996) that can enable you to assess your own use or abuse of power.
Communication between the parties in employment interviews is important, because each question and every response must be carefully considered. Often, implied meanings of questions and answers are conjectured, and perhaps misinterpreted. Those people responsible for the selection of employees are morally obligated to be familiar with the limits related to legal questions and assumptions that may be made about prospective employees (Refer to the discussion in Chapter 6 and Table 6.1). For example, interviewers should not assume that marital or parental status of individuals will affect their abilities to successfully perform their jobs. Gender, age, sexual orientation, and race discrimination, and assumptions related to these factors, are widely recognized areas in which the issue of ethics is of concern.
Ethics and etiquette, while undeniably different entities, are related in both business and personal settings. Concepts such as fair treatment of and respect for others, honesty, and the value of charity and generosity are recognized as moral absolutes (Bugeja, 1996), or rules that apply to everyone. The idea of a moral rule is rooted in the theory of ethics, but it is obvious that the concepts of fair treatment, respect, honesty, and generosity are also inherent components of etiquette. Most often, when you carry out an action that is “right” (ethical), it is also the action that is most considerate of other people involved and affected (etiquette). Etiquette, though, goes beyond ethics to establish an environment that encourages interactions and feelings of being at ease in a given situation. According to Emily Post (1984, p. xiii), the purpose of etiquette “is to make the world a pleasanter place to live in, and you a more pleasant person to live with.” This is a noble goal for which to strive and, indeed, is the “right thing to do” in both personal and professional environments.
The basic, and most familiar, rules of etiquette prevail in today’s business world. It is appreciated when “please,” “thank you,” and “you’re welcome” are used appropriately in conversation. It is good manners, and likely to result in a positive impression, to send thank-you letters and to be punctual with respect to correspondence and requests. A firm handshake is an appropriate action that demonstrates respect for an acquaintance. A smile or simply a nod or other gesture of acknowledgment is a polite way to recognize the presence or recognition of another. Respect for others and an appreciation for alternate points of view are hallmarks of both ethical behavior and good etiquette. When in the company of interviewers, colleagues, supervisors, or subordinates, your attention to good manners will be noticed and is likely to contribute to others’ perceptions of your professional profile.
Michael Bugeja (1996) encourages students to keep track of their behaviors by recording white lies and other nontruths. This exercise, he says, provides an opportunity for students to consider the potential consequences of their actions, and to quantify the number of times they compromise an ethical ideal. Your own history of behavior is important. Employment applications frequently include questions such as, “Have you ever been convicted of a felony?” If you have a record of shoplifting, you are not likely to be employed by a retailer. To “do the right thing,” we must apply ethical principles in all aspects of our daily lives. Refer to Box 8.4, which explores seven myths about ethical principles.
Applicants for employment with retailers or in merchandising positions are often asked to complete a psychological or “attitude” questionnaire. Results of such questionnaires contribute to hiring decisions. Responses to these questionnaires offer employers information related to one’s value system, beliefs, and behaviors. Although there are no right or wrong responses to the questions posed, one’s ethical construct contributes to the pattern of responses. An attitude questionnaire might ask such questions as, “Do you think that it is wrong for an employee to take home a pen from work?,” “If someone has stolen money before, can he/she be trusted to handle money in the future?,” and “Do you think it is okay to cheat on your income taxes?” Attitude questionnaires frequently ask questions pertaining to use of alcohol, tobacco, and other substances along with pointed questions regarding one’s history of convictions.
A code of ethics is a set of rules guiding the behavior of an individual or a group of people. Codes of ethics may be constructed to address philosophical issues, codes of conduct, or policies. Codes may be categorized as aspirational, educational, or regulatory. The nature of the code, whether it is a corporate code or a personal code, and the culture of the people or individuals for whom the code is constructed, dictates its purpose. Philosophical codes of ethics can also be referred to as aspirational. An aspirational code of ethics presents an individual’s or group’s values and ideals. The principles to which the person or group aspires are the focus of this type of code. A code of conduct could be considered an educational code of ethics. This type of code would be presented to help its readers make appropriate decisions for the organization or individual the code represents. A policy-related code of ethics is considered regulatory. Such a code of ethics contains detailed rules that govern the conduct of its author or members of the group it represents.
Many corporations have adopted ethical codes by which they operate and expect their employees to abide. An ethical code is a compilation of statements or rules, or both, that offer guidance and direction to the organization that has generated the code. Members of organizations represented by codes of ethics are compelled to act professionally and within the standards of the codes. Employees often possess certain knowledge and expertise in their professions that might result in a position of disadvantage among the public should standards of ethics not be maintained. Codes of ethics therefore serve as regulatory tools for organizations, and benchmarks by which needs for disciplinary actions may weighed.
When a member of an organization faces an ethical dilemma, the code of ethics, by providing written guidelines, can be used to help that member decide the best course of action. A code of ethics’ effectiveness is constrained by the circumstances under which it is administered. An effective code of ethics must be reflective of the company or organizational culture and must be enforced (Hira, 1996). The concept of creating a code of ethics has been embraced by many businesses and professional organizations. On the World Wide Web, numerous sources are dedicated to presenting information about organizations’ codes of ethics and the process of creating and using codes of ethics. The Center for the Study of Ethics in the Professions of the Illinois Institute of Technology (http:www.iit.edu/departments/csep/) and the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics of Santa Clara University (http://www.scu.edu/ethics/http://www.iit.edu/departments/csep/) and the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics of Santa Clara University (http://www.scu.edu/ethics/) provide a plethora of information on the topics of ethics and ethical codes.
A code of ethics usually begins with a general statement concerning the nature of the organization and the purpose of providing the code of ethics. This introduction is followed by specific belief statements directed toward the expectations of members represented in the organization or business. Codes of ethics may be either brief and general or lengthy and considerably detailed. One of the most comprehensive codes is that of the American Marketing Association (AMA), shown in Figure 8.2. The AMA Code of Ethics addresses responsibilities of marketers with respect to honesty and fairness, rights and duties of parties in the marketing exchange process, and organizational relationships. The National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) has adopted a code of ethics that addresses expectations of professional performance of its members (Figure 8.3).
To be optimally effective, it is essential that all members of an organization (or employees of a company) be familiar with the respective code of ethics. The code should be easily accessible to all employees, and should be shared with clients and other constituents of the organization. This reinforces the importance of accountability. The basis for discussion and awareness of ethics, and the reason for constructing a code, is that each person is responsible for his or her own actions. Individuals are expected to follow the rules of conduct set by law, company policy, and common professional courtesy. Individuals will be held accountable for decisions that they make and actions that they take in professional positions.
It is all too easy—and unfortunately fairly common—for employees to lose sight of ethical, or moral, considerations for the advancement of themselves, their division, or their company. Accountability is a reality. A helpful ethical benchmark is present by Kenneth Blanchard and Norman Vincent Peale in their book The Power of Ethical Management (1988): Ask yourself, “Is it legal?”, “Is it fair?”, and “How will it make me feel about myself?” A negative response to any of these questions should lead you to seriously reconsider that particular action. Consider also the ramifications of having your actions publicized for scrutiny by others. Remember, you will be held accountable for your behavior.
When faced with a simple dilemma, people undoubtedly are able to identify the difference between right and wrong. It is when the gray areas present themselves, however, that judgment can be difficult. Codes of ethics exist for these situations. Because of the individual nature of so many decisions that are made on behalf of organizations, the creation of a personal code of ethics can be an excellent beginning to exploring your ethical construct and your value system. Through the development of a personal code of ethics, you will have an opportunity to identify and prioritize your values. As you embark on a professional career, you can refer to your own code of ethics along with appropriate organizational codes of ethics to help guide your career choices and professional decisions. Examples of two students’ codes of ethics are presented in Figures 8.4 and 8.5.
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 Copyright © 1996 by Dr. Laura C. Schlessinger. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers Inc.