Ethics and Integrity

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We are part of a society—a collective of individuals assembled around general guidelines for how we should treat each other. Ethical expectations for conduct may differ depending on the cultural makeup of a given society, but the values inherent in such expectations help people understand right from wrong. The development of our personal values is influenced by family, religion, media, law, school, peers, community, workplace, and major historical events. As a starting place, understanding your personal values and how they developed helps you understand your strengths and weaknesses. It may also help you reflect on how important honesty and integrity are to you personally and if there is room to grow based on past decisions. This is important as it will determine how others perceive you and build your reputation. Individuals who create a reputation for honesty and integrity develop trust with those around them. Trust is especially important in the workplace to maximize productive relationships. Many of us have dreams of obtaining a good job and working our way up in an organization so that we can lead a unit or division. Our upward progress can be helped or hindered by the integrity of our decisions and ability to build trusting relationships with others.

You may ask what ethical principles should guide your decisions at work if what is important varies across people and cultural lines. Fortunately, the United Nations Global Compact suggests that there are ten universal principles that apply all over the world (Figure 1). The ten principles include dimensions of Human Rights (how we treat all people), Labour (how we treat workers), Environment (how we treat the environment), and Anti-Corruption (how we do business).

A table shows UN Global Compact Principles. In the first row, the first column reads, “Human Rights.” The next column shows a light blue ring with a dark blue equal sign inside it. The third column has the following text: “Principle 1: Businesses should support and respect the protection of internationally proclaimed human rights; and Principle 2: Make sure they are not complicit in human rights abuses.” In the second row, the first column reads, “Labour.” The next column has an image of four blue arrows pointing inward. The third column has the following text: “Principle 3: Businesses should uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; Principle 4: The elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labour; Principle 5: The effective abolition of child labour; and Principle 6: The elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.” In the third row, the first column reads, “Environment.” The next column shows three blue wavy lines, one above the other. The third column has the following text: “Principle 7: Businesses are asked to support a precautionary approach to environmental challenges; Principle 8: Undertake initiatives to promote greater environmental responsibility; and Principle 9: Encourage the development and diffusion of environmentally friendly technologies.” In the last row, the first column reads, “Anti-Corruption.” The next column shows a square with a light blue border, which has dark blue L’s facing away from the square at two diagonal corners. The third column has the following text: “Principle 10: Businesses should work against corruption in all its forms, including extortion and bribery.”

Figure 1. UN Global Compact Principles
A table shows UN Global Compact Principles.

Source: SAGE Publishing, adapted from Global Compact Network Japan

Companies that consider these kinds of ethical questions as they do business can perform better in the long run, especially if we extend our view of performance to include measures beyond financial performance. Most often, when Corporate Social Responsibility is considered, it includes social and environmental performance in addition to traditional economic measures.

As with individuals, firms may differ in the values they stress as most important. Some companies may report annually only on metrics like earnings per share and market share. Others may produce a sustainability report that specifies how the activities of the firm impact the environment. The production of such a report would signal that environmental impacts are important to the organization. Other ways to tell what is important to an organization include mission and values statements, policy documents, rituals and traditions, and behavioral norms.

Organizational artifacts (such as policy documents) can assist us in making the right decisions, but there are also basic ethical principles that should be considered. Commonly considered principles include (1) Autonomy—we have the right to make our own decisions as long as they do not affect others, (2) Nonmaleficence—we should not make decisions that cause harm to others, (3) Justice—be fair to others, treat them as you would like to be treated, and (4) Fidelity—keep your promises to others; includes integrity, truthfulness, loyalty, and respect. Incorporating these principles into your thought processes will help ensure that ethical considerations are included as you make decisions. Sadly, we see in recent news a number of scandals where neither individuals nor organizations considered ethics and integrity. These include the worst environmental disaster in history, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, associated with BP (Figure 2). In this example, a series of poor decisions led to a court finding of gross negligence and reckless conduct where 11 people died and over 3 million barrels of oil were spilled into the Gulf of Mexico.

Figure 2. A Boat Makes Its Way Through Crude Oil That Has Leaked From the Deepwater Horizon Wellhead in the Gulf of Mexico on April 28, 2010 Near New Orleans, Louisiana
A picture shows a white boat cutting through black water which is heavily contaminated by an oil spill. The water is black with occasional orange swirls.

Source: Chris Graythen/Getty Images News/via Getty Images.

As you move from college student to business executive, your conscious consideration of how the decisions you make affect others or the environment will mean that scenarios like this will be less likely to occur. Conscious consideration implies that you consider the ethical implications of your decisions, gather the facts, consider perspectives from all stakeholders, identify and evaluate alternative courses of action, implement a decision, and assess the impact of that decision. Reflecting upon your personal level of ethical sensitivity in this deliberative decision-making process will pinpoint your strengths and weaknesses and areas for development.

Above all, it is important to understand what principles are considered when we talk about ethics, your personal standing on important values, how this compares to your organization’s values, and to consider both of these elements as you carefully make decisions. As a leader in the field of business, the principle of Fidelity cannot be stressed enough. If you strive to operate with integrity at all times, ethical decisions will follow naturally and you will be the organizational leader that others want to emulate.

In this Skill, you will find real-world scenarios, videos, data, and more that will help you:

  • Understand where your values come from
  • Identify the importance of building a reputation for integrity
  • Apply ethics to organizational life
  • Consider ethical implications in decision making
  • Build your sensitivity to ethical issues

Further Reading

Alzola, M. (2019). Even when no one is watching: The moral psychology of corporate reputation. Business & Society, 58(6), 12671301.
Chen, A., Treviño, L. K., & Humphrey, S. E. (2020). Ethical champions, emotions, framing, and team ethical decision making. Journal of Applied Psychology, 105(3), 245273.
Dahlsrud, A. (2008). How corporate social responsibility is defined: An analysis of 37 definitions. Corporate Social Responsibility and Environmental Management, 15(1), 113.
Kaplan, R. S., Kaplan, R. E., Norton, D. P., Davenport, T. H., & Norton, D. P. (2004). Strategy maps: Converting intangible assets into tangible outcomes. Harvard Business Press.
Mitchell, M. S., Reynolds, S. J., & Treviño, L. K. (2020). The study of behavioral ethics within organizations: A special issue introduction. Personnel Psychology, 73(1), 517.
Ritter, B. A. (2006). Can business ethics be trained? A study of the ethical decision-making process in business students. Journal of Business Ethics, 68(2), 153164.
Salin, D., Cowan, R., Adewumi, O., Apospori, E.Bochantin, J., D’Cruz, P., Djurkovic, N., Durniat, K., Escartín, J., Guo, J., Išik, I., Koeszegi, S. T., McCormack, D., Monserrat, S., & Zedlacher, E. (2019). Workplace bullying across the globe: A cross-cultural comparison. Personnel Review, 48(1), 204219.
Trevino, L. K., Hartman, L. P., & Brown, M. (2000). Moral person and moral manager: How executives develop a reputation for ethical leadership. California Management Review, 42(4), 128142.